Acupuncture leaves mark on Miss Piggy; Vets use procedure as alternative to drugs


With 10 needles sticking out of her hide, Mary Bo Quoit looked more like a Chia pet than a racehorse. And her acupuncture treatment had just begun.

Poking here, prodding there, the veterinarian slipped another batch of 3-inch quills into the filly's flesh, from neck to rump. Now there were 20 razor-sharp needles protruding from her coat. Not that the horse seemed to mind. Her back resembled a slalom run, but Mary Bo Quoit stood still in her stall at the Bowie Racing Center, languidly scrunching hay.

Whew. Acupuncture agreed with the 3-year-old, nicknamed Miss Piggy, whose life is being chronicled in The Sun. For three weeks, the filly had been fighting the flu. Sounding hoarse. Not feeling her oats. Hence, the needles. "Many young horses would be out the door by now, but she's being a perfect lady," said Jo Anne Hughes, trainer and part-owner of Mary Bo Quoit. "Of course, she has better blood than most."

None of it spilled this day.

"She's an awfully good patient," said Kayla Shaw, the veterinarian who performed the treatment. A few of her clients go ballistic, she said. "I put a needle in one horse last year and he kicked me clear across the stall."

Embraced by the Chinese for 3,000 years, acupuncture involves placing needles along major body channels, called meridians. The treatment for both humans and animals is said to redirect the "flow" of "life force energy." Research indicates acupuncture stimulates the body's production of endorphins, or natural painkillers.

For Mary Bo Quoit, Shaw inserted tiny pink needles at key points along her shoulders, hips, chest and loins and left them in place for about an hour.

Shish kebabbed to the hilt, the steel-gray filly continued to eat, stopping once to nuzzle the vet.

Shaw, of Havre de Grace, is one of a growing number of horse doctors to adopt acupuncture therapy for conditions ranging from stubborn coughs to sore backs. Nationally, nearly one in five licensed vets offer it as an alternative to high-tech medicine, according to the 6,500-member American Association of Equine Practitioners. And the numbers are rising as acupuncture moves into the mainstream of veterinary medicine.

"Acupuncture has made its way into traditional ivory towers," said Dr. Mark Crisman of the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine in Blacksburg, Va. The college this year began offering acupuncture in its large animal clinic, said Crisman.

"There's a huge shopping bag full of things you can use it for, from lameness to eye problems," he said. "Some horses respond nicely to acupuncture and others do not. But I can say the same for drugs."

Skeptics remain. "Everyone is looking for the 'hole card' for a horse," said Dr. Nicholas Meittinis, a vet who practices at Maryland tracks. Acupuncture alone is a short-term fix and no cure-all, he said. "Nothing will replace Western medicine, but often the two [techniques] will work in tandem. It's all in the hands of who's doing it."

Kayla Shaw, 55, straddles that fence.

A former biomedical researcher, Shaw changed careers in 1992, earning a veterinary degree from the Blacksburg school. She then took courses sanctioned by the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society, hung a shingle and began doing needle work. "Acupuncture is a wonderful way to treat horses without using drugs," Shaw said, "but I use things like blood tests, too. We live in the 20th century, and I take advantage of it."

Mary Bo Quoit's treatment complete, Shaw withdrew the needles. The filly didn't flinch.

That was last week, and her trainer is pleased with her progress.

"Piggy' hasn't coughed or snotted since," Hughes said yesterday. "Before, she sounded like an old man with a pack of Lucky Strikes. To be honest, though, she was getting better, anyway."

Mary Bo Quoit is back on the track, galloping two miles a day and prepping for her first race this spring.

Hughes is among trainers who subscribe to routine acupuncture therapy, believing it gives their horses a leg up in races. "I want that edge," she said.

Her charges receive weekly maintenance treatments. "It's like changing the oil," said Hughes, who ponies up $50 per animal per visit.

For more serious maladies, the outcome is less certain.

"Have I ever failed to cure a horse? Of course -- I'm not God," said Shaw. "I get stumped and I say so. If I didn't, I'd be an egotistical idiot.

"Some horses are real mysteries."

Pub Date: 2/03/99

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