Swiss study highlights horse owners’ desire for complementary and alternative therapies

Horse owners in Switzerland frequently turn to practitioners of complementary and alternative medicine for horses with back problems and lameness, the findings of a study suggest.

Horse owners in Switzerland commonly turn to practitioners of complementary and alternative medicine when horses have orthopaedic problems, the findings of a study suggest.

The study focused on 357 registered Swiss Warmblood horses aged five and older who had been involved in an unrelated study on airway disease, during which owners had indicated their horse may have had an orthopaedic problem.

A total of 239 owners and caretakers of the horses were surveyed by telephone by a veterinarian, who identified a total of 222 orthopaedic problems in 170 of the animals.

Sixty-two horses were identified with a back problem, 96 horses with a lameness issue involving one or more limbs, and 12 had a combined back problem and lameness issue.

Complementary and alternative medicine was used commonly in this population, the researchers found. They were employed for 164 of the 222 problems (in 73.9% of cases) for both diagnosis and treatment. This treatment was rarely administered by a veterinarian – in only 27 of the 222 cases, or 12%.

The use of complementary and alternative medicine was even higher if a back problem was suspected by the owner, in 68 of the 74 problems identified (91.9%).

However, the owners declared that a veterinary diagnosis had been established in 75.7% of all cases (for 168 of 222 orthopaedic problems), some of which had involved x-rays or scans.

“The majority of the owners initially consulted a veterinarian,” Catharina Lange and her colleagues from the University of Bern reported in the journal Veterinary Medicine and Science. “If the problem did not resolve, they chose to consult a practitioner.

“A complementary and alternative medicine practitioner was the first choice for initial consultation in only one-third of the cases,” they reported, noting that this tendency was more pronounced in horses with suspected back problems.

Osteopathy was the most frequently applied complementary discipline, in 52.9% of cases, followed by homoeopathy (22.2%), acupuncture (14.7%), chiropractic (11.6%), physiotherapy (11.1%), massage (8.0%), magnetic field therapy (5.3%), animal communication (1.3%), kinesiology (0.9%) and a natural healer (2.2%).

“The results of this survey reflected the large demand for complementary and alternative medicine by horse owners,” the researchers said.

“A trained veterinarian administered complementary and alternative medicine treatments in only a small number of cases.”

This, they suggested, underlined the need for an educational system for people with non-veterinary professional backgrounds that assured adequate qualifications regarding equine anatomy and pathology, and experience in handling horses. This was in addition to a thorough education in the complementary therapy they were employing.

The study team said it also showed the need for joint efforts to improve cooperation between the use of conventional medicine and complementary and alternative medicine and to develop new multidisciplinary approaches to equine orthopaedic problems.

“As veterinarians, we need to increase our understanding of the potential merits and limits of each complementary and alternative medicine discipline and be able to critically assess their effects.”

A complementary and alternative medicine practitioner was found to be the first choice in 66 cases (29.6%), and even more so in suspected back problem (48 of 74, or 64.9%) compared to cases with a lameness problem (18 of 149, or 12.1%).

There are about 80,000 Swiss Warmblood horses registered in Switzerland.

Lange, C. D., Axiak Flammer, S., Gerber, V., Kindt, D. and Koch, C. (2017), Complementary and alternative medicine for the management of orthopaedic problems in Swiss Warmblood horses. Vet Med Sci. doi:10.1002/vms3.64

The study, published under a Creative Commons License,  can be read here

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