Taking a homeopathic approach to lyme disease in horses.
Lyme disease isn’t all that new. It’s actually been around for 40 to 50 years. But it’s now the most commonly reported tick-borne illness in the US and Europe, and is also found in Asia. Most cases are concentrated in about 15 states, mostly on the east coast from Virginia north. However, it can be found almost everywhere, so consider Lyme part of any diagnosis where the signs are complex or unclear with diagnostic procedures.
The Lyme spirochete (Borrelia burgdorferi) is a very mobile, corkscrew-shaped bacteria. In nature, its life cycle involves Ixodes ricinus ticks on the east coast, with other species used as hosts in other parts of the US and world. Contrary to popular belief, deer are not the only hosts for infected ticks, since different species prefer different hosts. Many small mammals are part of the host cycle, from white-footed mice (the main host in the northeast) to chipmunks, hedgehogs and rats, along with humans and dogs. The nymph stage ticks (they’re very tiny) are the source of most infections, while the adult tick, which is a little larger and easier to see, may be less important.
There are many different outer surface proteins (Osp) on the spirochete (some are measured with laboratory tests), and different portions are activated while the tick is eating its blood meal, even before the spirochete enters the body.
While in the body, the spirochetes continue to alter their structure from moment to moment. This probably contributes to the various symptoms that are part of the Lyme picture, as well as its resistance to treatment. Spirochetes actually travel faster in collagen (such as the myofacia, a thin membrane covering all the muscles) than they do in the bloodstream. This accounts for the common symptom of generalized body pain.
Lyme disease appears to actually suppress the body’s immune system. This may show up as low white cell counts on a traditional CBC, and likely contributes to the commonly seen low to equivocal Lyme titers.
One of the most common signs we see in horses is a lameness that is difficult to specifically identify. In humans, cognitive problems, irritability, fatigue, headaches, disorganization, nerve pain, deficits in memory and retrieval of information, movement issues and problem-solving difficulties are all symptoms. These signs likely also exist in the horse, though usually what we see is irritability, fatigue, lack of interest in work, perhaps stubbornness (or perceived stubbornness) or dullness, all of which are difficult to diagnose. About 15% of the cases seen in my practice become spooky, often to the point of being dangerous.
Arthritis attacks may come and go, often being worse at a full moon. The wax and wane of the symptoms may have to do with the ability of the immune system to respond.
A thorough history along with a complete physical exam and blood work are required. The history often becomes the most important aspect, with mental symptoms being very significant. Normal lameness problems seldom produce the behavior changes that Lyme does.
The physical part of the horse’s history can include shifting leg lameness, stiffness, poor performance, a reluctance to turn, poor jumping, etc. In many cases, horses have been worked up for subtle lameness issues and have had traditional treatments such as joint injections and various anti-inflammatories, but they have not responded well. Diagnostic imaging may be inconclusive, or may point to joint inflammation, yet treatment of the inflammation yields poor results.
Lyme is a complex disease to treat. This is when we wish we had a magic bullet, but there isn’t one. The best approach is a multi-systemic one, using the best of all worlds: conventional and complementary. This article focuses on homeopathic treatments, although with Lyme, a single treatment is seldom enough (see my website for an article about Lyme from all perspectives).
From a homeopathic perspective, one needs to take a complete history and prescribe a constitutional remedy based on the horse’s presentation. The real key is to approach each case as an individual, and treat the symptoms that are present. It may change from month to month as well as from year to year. It is very easy to want to give a remedy and expect a cure from it. Homeopathy is a very powerful tool, but Lyme is a very complex disease and requires quite a bit of skill to determine the best remedy.
Usually I find I need to give the remedy for a week or so. If I am using a 30X or C potency, I will give it twice a day, but I prefer the higher potencies (200C or higher), if I feel sure I have the right remedy.
Having said how complex Lyme is, there are several remedies that fit many of the symptoms quite well and can be used as a starting point. If they work well, then you should be able to finish with them and not have to keep repeating the same remedy. If you do not see positive results in a few weeks, it is time to consult a veterinary homeopath with experience treating Lyme.
• Ledum is one of the major remedies for Lyme disease. The symptoms it covers include effects from toxic puncture wounds as well as insects. A tick bite is both. Horses that respond to Ledum are likely either depressed and lethargic, or irritable and may get angry. They do not want to work and often have lameness.
•Rhododendron fits many horses with dullness of the mind, lack of interest in work, and no energy when working, along with many symptoms of lower leg pain, and pain that shifts from one leg to another. The best approach is a multi-systemic one, using the best of all worlds: conventional and complementary.
•Kalmia Latifolia generally fits horses that have become spooky and unpredictable rather than lethargic. It covers many of the symptoms of joint pain, nerve pain and weakness present in some horses.
•A Lyme nosode (a remedy made from diseased tissue) may be used by your practitioner as an adjunct to other remedies. The nosode can help trigger the immune system and help it heal. Nosodes can be useful, but care needs to be taken that the source is of high quality; the internet is full of remedies with wild claims about cures and no quality control over products. Quality nosodes are prescription items.
•Many other remedies can be used depending on the symptoms and how they change as the remedies begin working. Each month or so, it is important to re-evaluate and see what progress has been made. If two to three weeks go by without a response, it is time for a change. Other remedies I have used in Lyme cases include Arsenicum Alb, Calc Carb, Sulphur, Nitric Acid, Rhus Tox, Ruta Grav and many more.
Stress is a huge factor in recovery from Lyme disease. Herbs and homeopathics can help counteract this stress. It is also important to pay attention to the amount of rest the horse actually gets at a barn. It has been shown that at many busy barns, horses actually get very little rest and sleep. This adds to the stress that suppresses the immune system.
The treatment of Lyme disease is complex and requires a willingness to keep re-evaluating progress. Most horses can be returned to full performance even with chronic Lyme disease, but many will require ongoing maintenance.
In the Lab
Laboratory diagnosis of Lyme disease can be very difficult, even in humans where testing is significantly more sophisticated. The new Lyme Multiplex test from Cornell University gives the best indication of infection, but still cannot clearly identify all cases, nor does it relate to the degree of symptoms a horse may have. In many cases, horses with very high titer numbers seem to be easier to treat than horses with low numbers or longer-lasting symptoms. This may be because horses with high titers actually have a stronger immune system to fight the disease. The SNAP, a quick test, has not been shown to be as accurate in the horse as in other species
Joyce Harman, DVM, MRCVS, graduated in 1984 from Virginia Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine. She is certified in veterinary acupuncture and chiropractic, and has completed advanced training in homeopathy and herbal medicine. Her practice in Virginia (harmanyequine.com) uses 100% holistic medicine to treat all types of horses. Her publications include The Horse’s Pain-Free Back and Saddle- Fit Book – the most complete source of information about English saddles – and The Western Horse’s Pain-Free Back and Saddle-Fit Book.