East Meets West


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Bobby Willard, DVM, graduated from Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine in 1982. He practiced conventional veterinary medicine for quite some time after that.

“I saw the work of some chiropractic practitioners early on,” says Willard, of Equiplex, a practice limited to equine sports medicine, chiropractic and acupuncture, in Flower Mound, Texas. “I saw some cases that kind of wowed me, and I knew that as much as I tried not to believe it, I was lying to myself if I didn’t admit those horses benefitted.”Vet Advantage: Acupuncture, chiropractic are growing options to equine veterinarians

Then, in the early 1990s, a horse kicked him and fractured his leg. “My leg healed, but I lost some of the flexibility I had before,” he says. “I couldn’t bend over. My wife dragged me to a chiropractor. And that made a difference.”

The experience strengthened Willard’s belief that some of his equine patients might benefit from chiropractic as well. “I began referring patients to chiropractors, but at that time, there weren’t many local chiropractors doing equine work.” So he enrolled at Parker University in Dallas, whose program is certified by the American Veterinary Chiropractic Association. “Acupuncture followed after that. Through my chiropractic work, I learned the two modalities work in a complementary way – allowing the body to heal itself.

“I still do Western medicine,” he says. “But about 60 percent of my time is spent on ‘non-conventional’ medicine, and 40 percent ‘conventional.’” In addition to chiropractic, Willard received his certification in acupuncture at the Chi Institute of Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine in Reddick, Fla.

Willard is not unlike many other veterinarians who went to school in the 1980s.

“We didn’t receive any education on any kind of alternative medicine,” he recalls. “There was the underlying feeling – though I don’t think I heard it specifically – that those things were taboo; that it was the weirdos who would delve into it.”

That may be changing.

The Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine has been providing consistent equine chiropractic since 2012, says Becky Funk, DVM, DACVIM-LA, equine field service section chief.

“I believe the interest from students is increasing in parallel with increased interest from the general population,” she says. Students are also allowed to take an elective course during their second year that is targeted at introducing rehabilitation and complementary medicine. Chiropractic and acupuncture lectures are taught during this elective.

Funk adds that several veterinarians in small animal and large animal are trained in acupuncture, so students are exposed to acupuncture and chiropractic during their clinical rotations. “I believe the interest in acupuncture may actually be stronger than chiropractic, but it does vary among students and clients.”



Since 1989, approximately 1,250 licensed veterinarians or licensed chiropractors in North America have been certified by the Animal Chiropractic Certification Commission of the AVCA. There are approximately 700 active certificants. In order to be certified through AVCA, a person must either be a licensed veterinarian (DVM, VMD, or equivalent), or a licensed chiropractor (DC).

Meanwhile, more than 3,200 veterinarians have become certified through the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society, says Executive Director Deborah Prevratil. One must be a licensed veterinarian in their country of residence to become IVAS-certified. Fourth-year veterinary students may take the certification course, but will only become IVAS-certified after becoming licensed to practice veterinary medicine. Most states in the United States require a person performing acupuncture on animals to be a veterinarian, she adds.

Growing interest in chiropractic and acupuncture among horse owners and equine veterinarians shouldn’t be a surprise, given what’s happening in human medicine, according to those with whom Veterinary Advantage spoke.

Says Willard, “In human medicine, you’re seeing more interest in holistic methods of healing. I think that same desire by the public wanting holistic care for themselves spills over into the equine world and animal chiropractic. I think they go hand in hand.”

Says Prevratil, although horse owners often seek acupuncture for their horse’s lameness or pain, “acupuncture is now considered more acceptable for treating the whole animal, and horse owners seek out what is best for their horse.”


East meets West

Nor does growing interest in alternative medicine mean horse owners – or veterinarians – are writing off conventional Western veterinary techniques, such as pharmaceuticals and surgery.

“We always recommend to a potential client that they seek out a veterinarian that is certified in veterinary acupuncture, as a veterinarian will be able to diagnose the horse /animal completing all the Western diagnostics,” says Prevratil. “Acupuncture is used as an integrative approach.” And although in the past, acupuncture was considered something of a last resort – when surgery could not help, or when the client lacked money for traditional Western treatment – “this has changed, and acupuncture is used regularly and an integrated approach for many issues.”

Virginia-Maryland offers limited direct instruction on acupuncture and chiropractic in the coursework, says Funk. “However, I hope to build upon that in coming years. When students are on clinics and present at appointments where we do acupuncture or chiropractic, they see how Western and Eastern medicine can be combined in the treatment plan. Often we discuss this combination in those cases or related cases.”

Says Willard, “I think the competition and sometimes antagonism between conventional medicine practitioners and non-conventional [practitioners] is unfortunate. In my opinion, there’s no competition there – the two modalities only complement each other.

“Let me use an example: If I were in a car accident, I want to go to the closest hospital for the conventional medicine we’re blessed with in this country. They’ll patch me up. But very often, once I leave there, I need other care that can complement that. In a similar fashion, in animal chiropractic, the alternative medicine is good in that regard. Post-surgery, complementary care using alternative medicine can only help the surgeon’s case.

“A coming together of the modalities – I think that’s really where we need to be. In my practice, we’re increasing referrals from the guys and gals I’m competing with in conventional medicine. They know their clients are looking for chiropractic care, and they welcome someone who is educated and who won’t go behind their back; and I see the two working more in a way that complements each other, and I welcome that.”

Equine chiropractic

Equine chiropractic is a component of equine healthcare that focuses on the relationship between structure (primarily, the vertebral column) and function (as coordinated by the nervous system), and how that relationship affects preservation of health. For example, reduced mobility between two vertebrae can affect the nerves that leave the spinal cord between these vertebrae. Alteration to the nerves can lead to problems such as pain, abnormal posture, or poorly coordinated movement.

Equine chiropractic is a form of manual therapy that uses short lever, high velocity, low amplitude, controlled thrusts. Forces are applied to specific articulations or anatomic regions (“adjustments”) to induce a therapeutic response via induced changes in joint structures, muscle function, and neurological reflexes.

Chiropractic treatment does not replace traditional veterinary medicine; however, it can provide an additional means of diagnosis and treatment for a variety of musculoskeletal disorders. Equine chiropractic

Source: Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, www.vetmed.vt.edu/vth/services/equine/equine-chiropractic.asp


Acupuncture In small animals, including exotics, and large animals, primarily equines, acupuncture is most commonly used for musculoskeletal problems (e.g. arthritis), skin problems, nervous disorders, reproductive disorders, respiratory problems, poor immunity, and internal medicine problems, such as heart (cardiac) and kidney (renal) disease, etc.

Acupuncture is now known to affect all major physiologic systems. It works primarily via the central nervous system, affecting the musculoskeletal, hormonal, and cardiovascular systems. However, acupuncture does more than just relieve pain. Acupuncture also increases circulation, causes a release of many neurotransmitters and neurohormones (some of which are endorphins, the “natural pain-killing” hormones), relieves muscle spasms, stimulates nerves, and stimulates the body’s defense system, among many other beneficial effects. The particular method in which it works depends on the conditions being treated and the points used. Usually more than one mechanism of action is involved when each individual acupuncture point is “needled.”

In the Western world, acupuncture is used primarily when medications are not working, are contraindicated because of possible side effects, or when surgery is not feasible. In China, it is often used as the primary treatment before conventional medicines and surgery.

Source: International Veterinary Acupuncture Society, www.ivas.org/acupuncture-courses 

Further reading

  • American Veterinary Chiropractic Association, www.americanchiropractic.org.  A professional membership group promoting animal chiropractic to professionals and the public, and acting as the certifying agency for doctors who have undergone post-graduate animal chiropractic training.
  • International Veterinary Acupuncture Society, Fort Collins, Colo., www.ivas.org.  IVAS was founded in 1974 by a group of veterinarians in the United States who wanted to promote the use of veterinary acupuncture and to increase education in this modality.
  • Chi Institute of Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine, www.tcvm.com. With a main campus in Reddick, Fla., and program bases in Spain, China, South Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia, Australia, Costa Rica and South Africa, Chi Institute has graduated over 6,000 licensed veterinarians from 69 countries and regions around the world since its founding in 1998.