Don’t Try This at Home: UF Vet Heals Sick Horses with Acupuncture

Huisheng Xie, 352-392-4700, ext 4076

View Photo
View Photo

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Lost the Triple Crown again? Been a bit slow out of the gate? Four years old and already feeling like a 20-year-old nag?

To help keep animal athletes from going to the glue factory instead of the racetrack, the University of Florida has become one of the few universities to offer acupuncture treatment for horses.

The Chinese have been using the treatment for thousands of years, but despite its versatility, acupuncture on animals hasn’t been recognized – or practiced – in the United States until recent years. And universities have been even slower to adopt the treatment, with UF acupuncturist Huisheng Xie thought to be the only full-time alternative-medicine practitioner on staff at an American veterinary college.

“Not too many people know about it here, but acupuncture for horses has been done for a long time in China,” said Xie, a lecturer in veterinary medicine at UF’s Institute for Food and Agricultural Sciences.

There is one modern twist to Xie’s acupuncture practice: he uses electric needles that carry a mild current – about 4 volts – into a horse’s body. The charge, he says, stimulates nerve endings, making the treatment more effective.

Most Americans are familiar with acupuncture, the ancient Chinese practice that uses needles to treat a variety of illnesses, from headaches to high blood pressure. But most aren’t aware that Asian healers have also used acupuncture techniques on horses for thousands of years.

It appears to be effective in curing a number of illnesses that vex horse owners – illnesses such as founder, a condition that causes foot pain that keeps a horse from standing up, and colic, a painful intestinal condition.

Many of Xie’s patients suffer from anhydrosis, or the inability to sweat, a condition that can be life threatening in the summer months, particularly for horses that are being transported in horse trailers. Anhydrosis is a common ailment, affecting as many as one-fourth of all horses at some time, but its cause is unknown.

Exactly how acupuncture works is also a mystery, Xie says, though researchers suspect the practice encourages the release of endorphins, the pain-killing hormones naturally produced by the body.

At least, that’s the story according to conventional Western medicine. Practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine have long offered a different explanation: Acupuncture, they say, clears channels through which qi, or energy, flows through the body, restoring a natural balance that leads to good health.

Modern science hasn’t found proof of anything analogous to qi or its channels, but there is evidence that acupuncture does cure certain ailments. For instance, Xie says he has been able to relieve symptoms of anhydrosis in about half of the horses brought to him for treatment.

Though his practice is focused on acupuncture, Xie advocates a blend of traditional Chinese and modern medicine.

“They are merely two different ways of viewing the world, and each system has its own strengths and weaknesses,” he said. “Western medicine deals well with acute diseases and can utilize advanced surgical techniques. Eastern medicine can be beneficial for chronic diseases, especially those that Western medicine can only partially control but not cure.”

While technological advances have radically altered the nature of Western medicine over the past century, the techniques of acupuncture have remained virtually unchanged by modern technology. One important exception is the use of electrically charged needles like those Xie uses on his horse patients.

Acupuncturists often find it necessary to gently rotate needles after they’re inserted in order to stimulate nerve endings, Xie said. By running a mild electric charge through the needle, an acupuncturist can achieve the same effect.

Xie says he sees about 10 patients per week at UF College of Veterinary Medicine teaching hospital. Most of the horses don’t seem to mind a few pinpricks. Xie says in 20 years of working with horses he has encountered only a handful too frightened to stand still for the treatment.

“Some of the horses are actually very relaxed,” he said.

Xie’s work has even won over some human doubters.

“I have to admit I was a skeptic,” said Melbourne lawyer Wes Howze, who brought his daughter’s horse, Tripp, to Xie to be treated for anhydrosis. “But it’s working, and if it works I’m all for it.”



Avatar photo
Posted: November 12, 2003

Category: UF/IFAS

Subscribe For More Great Content

IFAS Blogs Categories