Veterinary medicine practices today offer many considerably ‘new’ methods of treatment in addition to traditional medicine and therapies for horse owners to choose from. The old-fashioned ‘horse doctors’ were limited in their practice; oftentimes limited to utilizing whatever was readily available — and in many cases a goodly dose of ‘hoping for the best.’ There are modern tools available today that the horse doctors in days of yore couldn’t even dream of, such as portable X-rays, ultra-sound and other such ‘fancy’ machinery; as well as a return to ancient forms of therapy, such as the use of herbs, heat and cold. Gone are the days of the one-pill-fits-all situations “and let’s just hope for the best.”
Even in rural areas, horse owners have the ability to find well-qualified veterinary practices with experts in the fields of traditional veterinary medicine as well as alternative medicines and therapies.
One such veterinarian located in the Catskills is Dr. Joe D’Abbraccio, of the Catskill Veterinary Services, PLLC, Monticello, NY. Dr. Joe is experienced in treating all types of animals — from a 1,000-pound horse to a 1-ounce canary — and was happy to provide information on some of the alternative therapies he employs.
Laser Therapy. Dr. Joe utilizes Class IV therapeutic laser beams from a portable machine that generates both heat and light energy, and sends it deep into the tissue. He explains the process as being similar to the photosynthesic process that occurs in plants, the laser therapy operates off the mitochondria in the cells and utilizes that mitochondrial action. The light and heat energy helps speed up the healing response, which develops by bringing in more blood flow to the area.
He uses laser therapy for horses and other animals to help heal muscle strains, ligament tears, and back injuries. Even wounds such as puncture wounds and those wounds too large to be closed right away, can benefit from this therapy. Traditional flushing and antibiotic treatment on large open wounds can result in the wounds closing over too soon — as these need to heal from the inside out. It has been found that even large wounds that penetrate deep down through the whole layers of tissue to the bone will grow back following the laser treatment. In addition, in instances of laceration wounds requiring stitches, the use of laser therapy results in a decrease of ‘proud flesh’ problems.
This form of alternative therapy involves a portable device, and can be used on horses and other large animals, as well as on small animals such as cats and dogs. When using laser therapy on small animals, Dr. Joe usually puts ‘sun’glasses on the animal so they are not directly looking at the beam. There are also glasses made especially for horses, however many get nervous and will not tolerate wearing them; and being much larger the technician often can turn their head another way or position her body so as to protect their eyes from the beam.
In a “Veterinary Practice News” article on Laser Therapy In Equine Practice, Dr. Ron Riegel, DVM, states that the Class IV therapeutic lasers “have now become an essential tool in modern equine practice.” He describes the successful use of these tools as being responsible for the relief of pain, a reduction in inflammation and an increase in circulation, which causes healing in the tissues and a restoration of function of the affected area. He classified areas where laser treatment can provide a great benefit to the horse: For rehabilitating and healing many common lameness disorders, such as tendonitis and tendon tears, back disorders and osteoarthritis; to maintain peak performance in an equine athletic discipline; to prevent the occurrence or recurrence of athletic injuries; and for wound healing.
He also stressed the importance of maintaining the equine athlete at his highest level of performance, and stated that deep-tissue laser therapy is an invaluable tool for this purpose.
And hand in hand with laser therapy, according to Dr. Joe, is physical therapy, or patient manipulation. He believes it is of utmost importance to keeping the animals moving; to manipulate the affected limbs and continue to try and move the limb to decrease edema (fluid buildup which results in swelling and stiffness) and increase circulation. Horses that are left standing around will start ‘stocking up’ — which is a condition that can be caused by inactivity, where the blood and lymph fluids start pooling up and swelling in the lower legs, and can exacerbate the development of laminitis. He is a big proponent of laser therapy and physical manipulation therapy as a good alternative to using drugs to treat many equine problems.
Another alternative form of therapy utilized by Catskill Veterinary Services is the use of Hot and Cold therapy. This is a good example of an old-fashioned remedy that is still called upon today. Hot compresses and ice packs are utilized for treating a number of ailments. The use of heat and ice is very important for relieving immediate source of pain and decreasing inflammation. However, the treatment is not used for an extended or long period of time, but rather on and off. Horses who have had surgical colic will have ice boots placed on their hooves — these are external boots with a double layer containing gel inside that fit around the horse’s hooves — and some extend as far up the leg to the knee and under the hock. Ice can be added to cool the entire lower part of the affected limbs. The ice therapy helps control inflammation sourced by systemic inflammation, as well as toxins from colic. Dr. Joe mentioned a study that was done a couple of years ago where it was found that broodmares that were kept confined would often develop laminitis. In the study, the use of cold therapy was employed, and a number of broodmares were immersed in ice baths to take the pressure off their feet. It was found that the mares in the study that were immersed in the ice baths did far better than the ones that were forced to stand.
Other alternatives to traditional drugs and medicines that are used successfully are Glucosamine and Chondroitin, which are becoming more commonly used to help alleviate pain and stiffness in the joints, as well as the use of Fish Oil, which is high in Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids. Other products that are high in Omega 3 fatty acids are foods such as flax seeds, sunflower seeds and coconut. Consumption of these products is said to help combat inflammation, cancer and autoimmune diseases. In addition they are cited as improving heart and kidney health; however the products are slow-acting and can take up to six to eight weeks before providing noticeable results. Some veterinarians will advocate using a ‘loading dose’ or higher level of the product for the first six weeks and then ease the dosage back down to the maintenance level. Some patients do notice a difference after using these products; others do not — but there do not appear to be any adverse side effects, nor are the products invasive as in other more traditional therapies, such injecting drugs into the affected area.
An alternative to Pergolide, the commonly-used drug for Equine Cushings Disease, is the use of the herb Chasteberry. A friend was treating her cremello gelding, Thomas, for Cushings Disease with Pergolide, and found that he had an adverse reaction to the drug, and was feeling sick and lethargic. It was recommended to try Chasteberry, and his owner, Carolin, said it “has helped a great deal. This was something he recommended a while back as an alternative; some horses do well on it and others don’t. Dr. Joe recommended Chasteberry as an alternative and that has done wonders.”
As with any medical program or treatment for your horse, it is important to consult with your veterinarian to decide on the best course of action for your horse. But it is comforting to know that there are many alternatives and choices to be made for the good health and well-being of your favorite equine!