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Recent research in alternative veterinary medicine


Alternative therapies such as traditional Chinese veterinary medicine (TCVM) and veterinary spinal manipulation therapy (VSMT)—also known as veterinary chiropractic—are increasingly being used to treat companion animals and horses for a wide array of health complications. These treatment methods can be used alone, but are typically most beneficial used in conjunction with Western medicine protocols. Abundant anecdotal evidence touts these treatments, and past and recent research also supports their effectiveness. The following article details some of the most recent studies involving TCVM and veterinary chiropractic. 

Traditional Chinese veterinary medicine

Traditional Chinese medicine has been used for more than 2,000 years to provide integrative care for patients. TCVM is composed of four branches that include acupuncture, herbal medicine, Tui-na (i.e., a form of therapeutic massage), and food therapy. We detail recent studies that have evaluated TCVM effectiveness.

TCVM to manage canine spinal pain and paresis

Kristin Velasco, DVM, MS-TCVM, performed a case study on 11 dogs who experienced acute neck or back pain and were unresponsive to conventional anti-inflammatory pharmaceuticals. The dogs received an integrative treatment that combined Chinese herbal medicine, acupuncture, and conventional anti-inflammatory pharmaceuticals, and their pain and neurological deficit scores were assessed on days 0, 7, 14, 21, and 28. These cases were compared to 15 concurrent cases who were treated using only conventional anti-inflammatory medications. The dogs who received TCVM demonstrated more rapid pain relief and similar neurological improvement. These statistically significant results suggest that integrating Chinese herbal medicine and acupuncture with conventional anti-inflammatory pharmaceuticals can provide more rapid pain relief and improved mobility in dogs who have failed to respond adequately to conventional therapy.

TCVM to treat canine neck pain

Donna Hein, DVM, MS-TCVM, performed a retrospective study comparing the efficacy of conventional treatment to TCVM for canine neck pain and cervical disc disease (CDD). She collected medical records on 42 dogs who exhibited one or more of these clinical signs:

  • Cervical pain
  • Cervical stiffness
  • Decreased neck range of motion
  • Hemiparesis or tetraparesis

Thirty-one dogs were treated using acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine, and 11 dogs were treated with corticosteroids and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). Each dog was assessed for cervical pain, stiffness, range of motion, neurological deficits, and front limb lameness before and after four treatments. The dogs treated conventionally improved some after treatment, but the TCVM group improved significantly. 

TCVM to treat canine thunderstorm aversion

Cynthia McDowell, DVM, MS-TCVM, and Deng-Shan Shiau, PhD, performed a study to determine if TCVM, basic desensitization and counterconditioning (DSCC), and a behavior modification drug could reduce canine thunderstorm aversion (CTA) in dogs. Twenty-three dogs whose behaviors were consistent with CTA were enrolled in the study. All dogs received a TCVM pattern diagnosis and were treated using pattern-specific Chinese herbal medicine and acupuncture points. In addition, owners received DSCC behavior modification protocols and a behavior modification drug to use during thunderstorms. The dogs were examined monthly for four months, and their Chinese herbal medicine formulations and acupuncture treatment adjusted as TCVM patterns changed. After 120 days, the dogs’ overall thunderstorm aversion behaviors were significantly improved compared with reported cases of dogs treated only with conventional treatments, indicating that TCVM may help dogs affected by CTA.

Veterinary chiropractic

VSMT, or veterinary chiropractic, has been used since the 1980s to treat animals with orthopedic and neurological conditions and to help maintain normal mobility and athletic performance. Previous studies have demonstrated that spinal manipulation may effectively reduce pain, improve flexibility, and improve muscle tone and spinal kinematics symmetry in horses. However, few studies support these claims, and research in other species is sparse. Recent studies that have evaluated VSMT include:

Chiropractic care and low-level laser therapy to treat back pain in Quarter Horses

Kevin Haussler, DVM, DC, PhD, Dipl. ACVSMR, and other researchers evaluated the clinical effectiveness of low-level laser therapy and chiropractic care to treat thoracolumbar pain in competitive western performance horses. The randomized clinical trial included 61 Quarter Horses with back pain who were actively involved in national western performance competitions. The horses were treated with laser therapy, chiropractic care, or combined laser and chiropractic care. Outcome parameters included a visual analog scale of perceived back pain and dysfunction and detailed spinal examinations evaluating pain, muscle tone, and stiffness. Low-level laser therapy significantly improved back pain, epaxial muscle hypertonicity, and trunk stiffness. Combined laser therapy and chiropractic care demonstrated similar back pain improvement and also showed improved results in epaxial muscle hypertonicity and trunk stiffness. Used alone, chiropractic care did not significantly change back pain, muscle hypertonicity, or trunk stiffness. These results support a multi-modal approach using low-level laser therapy and chiropractic care to treat equine back pain. 

Chiropractic treatment to prevent spondylosis in boxers

Kristin Steinmoen Halle, DVM, and Aksel Granhus performed a randomized study that included boxer puppies from 17 litters, to determine if chiropractic treatment could reduce the probability of spondylosis deformans in boxers. Half the puppies received veterinary chiropractic treatment at monthly intervals from 8 weeks to 12 months of age, and the other half received no treatment. The spondylosis frequency was significantly lower in treated dogs compared with controls, which suggests that veterinary chiropractic treatment may help reduce early spondylosis development in boxers. 

More research is needed to determine the extent of the benefits that these alternative treatments can offer animals, but when used correctly, these techniques can likely augment conventional treatments and improve a patient’s outcome. 

About the author

Jenny Alonge received her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree from Mississippi State University in 2002. She then completed an internship in equine medicine and surgery at Louisiana State University. After her internship, she joined an equine ambulatory service in northern Virginia where she practiced for almost 17 years. Alonge later decided to make a career change in favor of more creative pursuits and accepted a job as a veterinary copywriter for Rumpus Writing and Editing in April 2021. She adopted two unruly kittens, Olive and Pops, in February 2022.

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