A recent letter to the Lexington Herald-Leader offered a novel way to reduce the number of breakdowns at the race track. The writer, a self-styled "horse communicator," suggested that he can detect a horse’s injuries up to two weeks before the nature and site of the injury become apparent to a veterinarian. Utilization of this skill, the writer said, would allow sore or injured horses to be held out of races, presumably reducing the number of horses that break down during competition.

I grew up showing American Saddlebreds, and our trainer had an uncanny ability to know when one of our horses was ill. Albert would walk down the barn aisle, looking into each stall, and every now and then announce that "King of Diamonds has a fever," or "Somethin’ Special is a little off today." Maybe he was communicating with the horses, but my guess is that he was simply relying on a lifetime of experience as a trainer to pick up subtle signals that were lost on me.

Whether people can actually communicate with horses is not the point, though. The question is whether offering that service to horse owners, either for free or for pay, violates any laws. The answer, perhaps surprisingly, may be "yes."

Each state has on its books a veterinary practice act that defines the practice of veterinary medicine by listing procedures and techniques that require a veterinary license. Each veterinary practice act is unique, but there are many similarities. I reviewed the laws of all 50 states for "State Regulation of Complementary and Alternative Veterinary Therapies: Defining the Practice of Veterinary Medicine in the 21st Century," an article that appeared in the inaugural issue of the Kentucky Journal of Equine, Agriculture, and Natural Resources Law. One of the common factors in all of the practice acts was defining the practice of veterinary medicine to include the diagnosis, treatment, relief, or prevention of any animal disease, defect, or injury. This definition includes traditional veterinary therapies, as well as massage, acupuncture, chiropractic, ultrasound, and more esoteric complementary and alternative therapies.

Does learning that a horse has a sore ankle by having the animal tell you about the condition really constitute the diagnosis or prevention of an injury, and thus the practice of veterinary medicine requiring a license? The answer depends on how broadly you interpret the veterinary practice act in force where the supposed animal communication takes place. My physician sometimes comes up with a diagnosis based solely on what I tell him about my symptoms, and I have no problem calling that process the practice of medicine. (There may be separate legal issues involved if a person claims to be able to communicate with a horse but cannot actually do so. Fraud may be involved, especially if money changes hands in payment for the service, but that is another matter entirely.)

Veterinary practice acts also include exceptions to the licensing requirement. In all states, the owner of an animal can treat the animal’s illnesses and injuries without running afoul of the law. Many states also exempt regular employees of the animal’s owner, as well as an individual who aids an animal owned by another person if there is no remuneration. Some states allow a non-veterinarian practitioner such as a massage therapist to work under the direct or indirect supervision of a licensed veterinarian, others do not.

The point here is not to denigrate animal communicators or practitioners of complementary or alternative therapies for horses and other animals. Some techniques once considered on the fringes of accepted veterinary medicine now are approaching mainstream status as more animal owners seek new therapies and employ non-veterinarians. It is important, however, that animal owners make informed choices about veterinary treatment.

When considering a complementary or alternative therapy for a horse or other animal, an owner should ask questions about the practitioner’s qualifications and certifications, if any. Was the certification from a recognized four-year degree program, for example, or a fly-by-night, weekend course at a local motel? Not all programs are created equal. The owner should obtain and review references from other clients, be certain that the practitioner is covered by liability insurance, and verify that the practitioner can legally provide the offered services under the state veterinary practice act. Better safe than sorry always is good practice.