Addition of Complementary Therapies to Zoologic Medicine
American Association of Zoo Veterinarians Conference 2017
Jessica A. Marziani1, DVM, CVA, CVC, CCRT; Christine M. Molter2, DVM, DACZM; Lauren L. Howard3, DVM, DACZM
1CARE Veterinary Services, Houston, TX, USA; 2Denton A. Cooley Animal Hospital, Houston Zoo, Inc., Houston, TX, USA; 3San Diego Zoo Safari Park, San Diego, CA, USA


Complementary therapies, including rehabilitation, Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), and chiropractic care are adjunct treatments that can be used in conjunction with more conventional therapies to treat a variety of medical conditions. Complementary therapies do not need to be alternatives to western medicine, but rather can be used simultaneously. The addition of complementary therapies to the practice at the Houston Zoo has enhanced the quality of life, longevity, and positive outcomes for various cases across multiple taxa.

Over the last 42 months, the Houston Zoo has consulted with a veterinarian certified in chiropractic, acupuncture, and rehabilitation therapies (complementary therapy veterinarian), who has provided treatment to over 40 species. The zoo’s veterinarians communicate directly with the complementary therapy veterinarian for case selection and are present at each patient’s initial evaluation to discuss history, treatment feasibility, and to formulate a comprehensive treatment plan. The initial evaluation also includes feedback from the keepers and their supervisory staff about what the individual animal will tolerate and ongoing training behaviors that keepers can implement to facilitate future treatments. This arrangement has empowered keepers to have greater primary responsibility, to train for a specific therapy goal, and to actively participate in an animal’s medical care. Whenever possible, follow-up visits with patients usually are completed by the complementary therapy veterinarian independently. This allows more time to be spent with the patients during their therapy sessions, thereby allowing the zoo veterinarian to attend to the remainder of the zoo population.

Patients most commonly treated with complementary therapies are geriatric and have musculoskeletal weaknesses that can be addressed with creative rehabilitation techniques. For instance, a Komodo dragon (Varanus komodoensis) with neck pain stemming from vertebral subluxations and weak cervical muscles was prescribed resistancea band exercises to strengthen those muscles. Another example involved a geriatric leopard (Panthera pardus) with cervical nerve root impingement causing a forelimb lameness. This animal was taught exercises to stretch out its neck using target training. Frequent training sessions for these exercises provided enrichment and improved the leopard’s condition. The exercises resulted in the leopard making fuller use of its exhibit space, including areas historically avoided due to its cervical instability.

Rehabilitation therapies also have been utilized to promote recovery of orthopedic injuries after surgical repair. As an example, elasticb adhesive tape and specific exercises were successfully used to strengthen and maintain maximum range of motion in a flamingo’s (Phoenicopterus chilensis) wing post ulna fracture repair. Other rehabilitation therapies used at the Houston Zoo have included changing enclosure substrates to ease movement or encourage muscle development; adding exercise equipment (such as ground poles that must be stepped over when entering and exiting a barn); feeding in a narrow chute to encourage the animal to back out of it to build hamstring muscles; and adding produce to water features to encourage swimming retrieval of the food.

TCM encompasses many practices. The technique utilized most frequently at the Houston Zoo is acupuncture. There are 14 meridians, or acupuncture channels, that run throughout the body. Acupoints are located along these channels, and when stimulated they work to regulate the body’s circulation and nerve function. The acupoints can be stimulated in a variety of ways, with the most common methods utilized at the Houston Zoo being dry needle acupuncture, laserc acupuncture, and electroacupunctured. The selection of which type of stimulant for the acupoints for each patient is based on patient cooperation and safety. For example, a grizzly bear (Ursus arctos) received laser acupuncture through protected contact. Trained or conditioned animals that can have direct contact, such as the Komodo dragon, do well with dry needle acupuncture. Acupuncture therapy also has been utilized when patients are under anesthesia for routine or diagnostic procedures. For example, a female western lowland gorilla (Gorilla gorilla gorilla) was anesthetized for a routine examination, and the complementary therapy veterinarian was able to work in concert with the zoo veterinarians while other procedures were performed. Acupuncture needles were used to help with chronic hip dysplasia and to balance reproductive hormones without increasing the anesthesia time. Following its acupuncture treatment, the gorilla displayed breeding behavior for the first time at the Houston Zoo.

Chiropractic care aims to restore normal interactions between the spine and nervous system. A chiropractic adjustment is a precise movement at a specific angle with a controlled force and is used to remove chiropractic subluxations, which are adjacent joints lacking normal motion and/or alignment. Chiropractic care can be used on animals that are awake or under anesthesia. Patients that cannot be directly manipulated while awake may be adjusted while recovering from anesthesia for other procedures without increasing the total anesthesia time. At the Houston Zoo, the complementary therapy veterinarian has used chiropractic care to help with an array of cases including acute and chronic lameness in various species, self-mutilation of the tail in a leopard, and chronic neck pain in a chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes). Another example is a St. Vincent amazon parrot (Amazona guildingii) that was unable to use its right pelvic limb at one month of age. The cause of this functional deficiency was undetermined despite a thorough medical evaluation. Chiropractic adjustment of the pelvis and hip restored normal function to this limb, and the chick proceeded to develop normally. This case is an example of complementary therapy providing improvement when western medicine did not.

In summary, complementary therapies at the Houston Zoo are beneficial to a wide variety of cases. The collaborative relationships of the complementary therapy veterinarian, zoo veterinarians, and keeper staff are the key to success. This discipline adds another tool to use, along with western medicine, to help improve overall patient quality of life.


a. REP Band Level 3, Magister Corporation, Chattanooga, TN, USA
b. RockTape Canine kinesiology tape, RockTape USA, Campbell, CA, USA
c. MODEL Pointer Pulse handheld pulsed laser and pulsed TENS, Lhasa OMS, Inc., Weymouth, MA, USA
d. Electronic Acupunctoscope WQ-6F, Chi Institute of Chinese Medicine, Inc., Reddick, FL, USA


The authors would like to thank Joe Flanagan, DVM; Maryanne Tocidlowski, DVM, DACZM; Judilee Marrow, DVM, DACZM; and the animal husbandry staff of the Houston Zoo for their dedication to animal care.


Speaker Information
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Jessica A. Marziani, DVM, CVA, CVC, CCRT
CARE Veterinary Services
Houston, TX, USA

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