A centuries-old Chinese medical treatment is gaining a loyal following among some Chester County horse and pet owners. New Bolton equine field vet Dr. Meagan Smith has been using acupuncture on horses for the past five years, and both she and the owners have been pleased with the results.
“It’s gratifying to hear owners say that when they get on to ride the day after acupuncture treatment, they feel there’s such a difference,” says Smith, who spends her days traveling between horse farms to treat her patients.
While acupuncture for humans is ever more widely accepted, fewer people are aware that it can also be used for animals. Smith’s patients, whom she describes as “supreme athletes,” include race horses and those ridden for foxhunting, eventing and for pleasure.
Acupuncture doesn’t replace Western treatment, but vets find it eases pain and may even decrease the need for certain medications. It’s used to treat a range of conditions, from back pain and facial paralysis to equine asthma and gastrointestinal problems.
“The number one use is for musculoskeletal soreness, stiffness and pain. I use acupuncture when there’s some generalized, less specific cause for the problem,” says Smith, one of two New Bolton vets trained in acupuncture.
Once she’s taken a history and performed an exam, Smith does a diagnostic scan of acupuncture points to guide the treatment. Using needles specifically gauged for horses, she inserts as many as 30 into the horse’s acupoints, just as Chinese practitioners have been doing for centuries on humans.
While some horses are wary when the needles are being placed, they all relax once the needles are in. “Some are more dramatic. Some you get full head drop, practically the nose to the ground,” Smith says. “[For] some, [it’s] what looks like real sleep, and some just get quiet,” Smith says.
There are acupoints all over the body located along pathways called meridians. This network conducts energy—or chi—to regulate balance in the body and its organs. A needle might be placed near the hoof, but its therapeutic effect will be felt in a different part of the body.
Western practitioners recognize the benefits of acupuncture, though it’s not fully understood scientifically. Smith had been intrigued by the idea of acupuncture and was prompted to go for the training because many clients asked her about it for their horses. Alternative medicine is not part of the curriculum at most veterinary schools, including the University of Pennsylvania, which operates the 700-acre New Bolton campus in Kennett Square. Smith earned her certification from the Chi Institute of Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine in Florida, where she saw firsthand how animals respond to treatments. “There are acupoints for everything,” she says. We’re taught to treat everything except urgent emergencies.”
There are even acupoints for the mind. Horses that get upset during competition or trailering can be treated on acupoints that produce a calming effect. Some owners want monthly treatments for their horses just to keep them feeling their best, especially if they’re involved in competition.
Sometimes Smith treats horses hospitalized with conditions causing severe pain. “Seeing them relax and have moments of feeling that good when they’re in chronic pain is very gratifying,” she says.
Acupuncture is just one of several components in traditional Chinese medicine. Kennett Square vet Dr. Elizabeth McKinstry offers acupuncture, Chinese herbal medicine, tui na (massage of treats cats, dogs and horses. She is certified in all.
“You can treat so many more things,” she says. “It’s made a huge difference in my practice.”
McKinstry earned her veterinary degree from the University of Pennsylvania. For the past several years, she’s been practicing integrative medicine at the Kennett Square farm where she grew up. She lives in her grandfather’s house with her son, three cats and two dogs. She has four horses, as well.
“Cats love acupuncture. Most just zen out,” she says.
Like most vets who offer alternative therapies, she uses a complementary approach in treating her patients. “There are some things that Western is better with, other things where Eastern is better,” she says.
McKinstrys has seen good results with her combined approach to treating chronic Lyme disease. First, she uses conventional Western medication. “[Then] I follow up with an herbal formula to build up their acupoints) and food therapy in her practice, where she immune system and energy,” she says. “You can treat just about anything with herbals. There are thousands of herbal remedies. The Chinese kept very good records of what they did, whether they used the root, the flower or the leaf.”
McKinstry acknowledges that some of her clients are skeptical about alternative treatments. “A lot of people say, ‘I don’t really believe in this, but nothing else is working so I figured I’d give it a try,’” she says.
Chinese medicine doesn’t just target specific symptoms. It takes a more holistic approach that looks at the overall health of a person or animal. A key part of the diagnosis is looking for an underlying cause of what’s ailing an animal. McKinstry sees stressed dogs who spend the entire day alone in the house and horses kept in stalls where they can’t get out. “You can use herbals and acupuncture for anxiety,” she says.
At the same time, McKinstry promotes the importance of diet and exercise. She recently told the owner of a dog with a number of problems that he needed to take his pet for regular walks. The owner later reported that both he and the dog were doing better.
According to New Bolton’s Smith, the Chinese view acupuncture as a way to boost energy and the immune system and to prolong life. “They don’t necessarily wait until there’s something wrong with their horses,” she says. “Acupuncture can be thought of as something like a monthly massage.”