While some early veterinary treatments and procedures were based on shaky science, many were just bizarre. Here
are some of the quack cures inflicted
on horses (and occasionally people)!
Pinfiring, or thermocautery, became popular over a century ago to treat lower-limb injuries and utilized a small, red-hot probe to cause burning of tissue to produce an inflammatory reaction. Most often used in racehorses rather than performance horses for conditions such as splints, bucked shins, curbs, or chronic bowed tendons, the process was performed under sedation and local anesthesia.
Pinfiring is a painful procedure with no supporting research to prove that it works; it is likely that any improvement was due to the required stall rest, not the treatment itself. Not surprisingly, pinfiring has thankfully fallen out of favour, although the fact that modern thoroughbreds do turn up occasionally with cauterization scars suggests that this barbaric practice is not entirely dead.
Blood-letting, a common procedure for human patients for almost 2,000 years until the late 19th century, entails withdrawing blood to prevent or cure illness and disease. Bloodletting was performed by a physician using a fleam to open a vein or by applying leeches, based on ancient medicine in which blood and other bodily fluids were considered “humours” that had to remain in proper balance. In cases of hypertension, bloodletting actually worked to temporarily reduce blood pressure by reducing blood volume.
In horses, practitioners let blood by piercing a vein, most commonly the jugular, with a lancet or fleam to guard against “plenitude” (too much blood in the vessels), to cool “hot” blood, release corrupted humours or “toxins,” and protect over-loaded organs. This gory practice remained widespread for use on cats, dogs, and horses well into the 20th century, but has now been generally abandoned as a pseudoscience.
Dr. Bell’s Veterinary Medical Wonder
Dr. George W. Bell was born in 1858 and graduated from the Ontario Veterinary College in 1880. He practiced veterinary medicine in the U.S. for 15 years before returning to Canada to open the Kingston Veterinary College in 1895 and establishing his own practice in Kingston.
A commonly-used tincture among North American horse owners, Dr. Bell’s Veterinary Medical Wonder was touted to be “A great remedy for the most common ailments of domestic animals. Used in the treatment of Pain, Colic, Inflammation of the Bowels or Kidneys, Stoppages of the Urine, Fevers, Chills, Coughs, Scours, Distemper, Azoturia, Black Water, Thumps, Shipping Fever, and Nervous Exhaustion.” While the ingredients were not listed on the label, they were believed to include aconite, belladonna, digitalis and nux vomica (strychnine) and possibly codeine and arsenic. As deadly-sounding as it is, strychnine was commonly used in both human and equine medicine to stimulate digestion. The amazing thing was that horse owners swore Dr. Bell’s worked to restore health and energy to sick or exhausted horses.
Ages before medical marijuana became an accepted treatment for human ailments, horses were administered a cannabis brew to cure colic. Reports of feeding hemp seeds to horses to facilitate weight gain can be found as far back as the 1600s.
The Parke Davis pharmaceutical company of Michigan produced the potent liquid Cannabis Americana, grown in the US from Indian and Nepalese hemp seeds, beginning in 1910. The dried flower tops of the hemp plants were percolated into an oily resin and mixed with alcohol. The product was marketed to physicians as a cure-all for a variety of human ailments, but veterinarians also jumped on the bandwagon. The US War Department also got on board, recommending a teaspoon of Cannabis Americana mixed with one tablespoon of olive oil for colicky horses.
Spohn’s Compound was another popular veterinary “miracle” product described as “A Stimulating Expectorant” and remedy for distemper, influenza, pink eye, catarrhal, fever, coughs and colds for horses and mules as well as dogs, rabbits and chickens. It was developed in Amish country in Indiana in the early 1900s and had bold claims about its usefulness: “At the first sign of a cough or cold in your horse, give a few doses of ‘Spohn’s’. It will act on the glands, eliminate the disease germ and prevent further destruction of body by disease.” This was apparently achieved through its ingredients which consisted of sulphur, oil of tar, creosote, and turpentine, applied by spoon up to six times per day directly on the back of the tongue.
Interesting to note that creosote was used for centuries in human medicine to treat stomach and bowel irritability, ulcers, abscesses, to deaden tooth pain and to stimulate the mucous membranes in the mouth and throat. In the early 1900s it was mixed with eucalyptus oil and administered through a vaporizor as a treatment for tuberculosis.
Special thanks to Lisa Cox, curator of the Barker Veterinary Museum, Ontario Veterinary College, University of Guelph for her help with this article. The medical museum collects and interprets artifacts, including instruments, letters and photographs from the Ontario Veterinary College dating back to 1861.