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What is Osteopathy?

Osteopathy as a method of species conservation

by Tony Nevin, BSc (Hons) Ost, DO, Osteopath at Zoo Ost Ltd

animal therapy magazineOsteopathy is one of the manually applied forms of medicine. It dates back about 130 years and is a Westernadaptation of Native American medicine, so has lineage much further back in time.

As a form of medicine osteopathy looks at finding out the root cause of a health problem, and then attempts to address this, rather than chase symptoms and pain. This is not to say that it ignores these valuable signs though. An example often used is the one where someone turns on a tap but no water flows. Is the problem with the tap? It might be, but it could also be a problem anywhere along the watercourse. As an osteopath I want to know why a patient has the signs and symptoms they present with. I do not merely want to treat those symptoms. How osteopaths treat their patients does vary. I will talk about the way I work, and am evolving to work constantly in order to produce the best possible outcome for my patients.

Osteopaths look at the body framework, or musculoskeletal system (MSK) and the way that each individual holds themself, and the way in which they move. Combined with as full a case history as is possible the osteopath will want to observe normal movement of the patient, and if possible particular gaits and tasks, such as walking and trotting in a straight line, turning in tight circles, and walking backwards. Obviously this does depend on the species in question and rarely would it apply to wildlife cases.

The case history will include all veterinary and keeper staff information, as well as specific information that I also require.

Prior to any hands on work there will be rigorous health and safety procedures put in place. This is not always quite as rigorous as it should be, especially when working in some of the range state countries. In these situations I way up probable issues versus likely treatment outcomes.

Once protocols have been accepted what I need to be able to do is work out a probable treatment programme. Probable treatment programme, because no two treatments are ever exactly the same.

animal therapy magazineAs an osteopath I need to work through the MSK to access and enable changes to the central nervous system (CNS). We often liken this to computers, with the MSK being the computer itself, and the CNS the software within it.

By engaging with the various

peripheral and autonomic nervous system connections it is possible to effect changes within the spinal cord where pain stimuli have triggered the pain gate mechanism within the spinal cord inter-neurone connections.

If a situation is of a chronic nature, then I will attempt to calm down fascilitated activity by way of reducing factors contributing to neurones firing randomly at the slightest stimuli (rather than at a normal threshold of firing).

Some of the finer (gently applied) osteopathic techniques are great at achieving this, where the only other alternative is long term chemical intervention.

What role can osteopathy play in conservation?

An immediate part that osteopathy can play in conservation is in the area of treating injured wildlife. To date this has included many species of mammal, reptile, and bird. It is just as useful in helping with the effects of shock with orphaned mammals.

Within the “injured” wildlife category these can be split into physical trauma origin, and psychological trauma origin. Obviously there can be elements of both within the same casualty.

By assisting with treatment as part of the overall rehabilitation package, or team, osteopathy can offer significant reductions in time for individual patients to be returned to the wild. This factor alone can mean the difference between a patient successfully returning to a social group (European badger, Meles meles), or even being accepted back by its mother, in the case of certain deer species. By topping up the wild populations with individuals that would probably have died, it can be argued that this does reduce pressure on some wild populations.

A counter argument could be that these individuals weaken the strength of the gene pool, although I would argue that most of these casualties are from human made problems, and not from an individuals lack of intelligence.

With my elephant work in South East Asia I have been demonstrating the benefits of utilizing certain osteopathic techniques that are easy to teach to mahouts, and reputable tourist encounter organisations. The hope is that by encouraging better care of their elephants that this can also reduce the pressure on wild populations, by reducing the numbers that are being taken from the wild to prop up the “domestic” demand for these creatures as status symbols.

animal therapy magazineOsteopathy is also very good at improving both the physical and psyche of captive species, as the work is so tactile it does seem to break down some of the communication barriers, even when individuals are treated under general anaesthetic!

The osteopathic treatment of wildlife

These basically fall into two main groups; trauma based, and orphans or impaired individuals (not fit enough to be released back to the wild, but too valuable as a gene pool resource to euthanize).

Of the trauma based ones, those with non-critical injuries are fixed up by the team (including vets and nurses) and released back to the wild. The rest are either deemed never likely to make it in the wild and not likely to cope with captivity, and therefore get euthanized, or they are sent to specialist centres to become part of a breeding programme.

Orphans come in all shapes and sizes. Hedgehogs are really easy to rear and release. Elephants take years of continuous hard work, and then take even longer to hack back to the wild. Some patients are suitable for homing in zoos and safari parks, including elephant calves. Many African elephants within European collections are from family groups that were culled. Some individuals remain in “captivity” and are employed as ambassadors for their species within range states.

Taking pressure off wild populations

As already mentioned, osteopathy can contribute towards propping up wild populations. In looking at improving fertility in captive populations, it is also possible, with advances in AI techniques, to keep gene pools more diverse than would otherwise be the case.

The continual improvement in captive welfare is ensuring better longevity of these populations, and by being more transparent about these welfare improvements collections can raise public awareness, and thus help to educate future generations about the plight of their wild cousins.

How can all this be applied?

Osteopathy is much about having an open mindset as it is to using specific treatment techniques. There is obviously the “hands on” work, but it is also just as plausible that I might be looking at a situation that requires some lateral thinking. An example of this concerns a lion I was asked to look at with known neurological problems. Anaesthesia wasn’t a safe option, so instead of giving up I devised a series of exercises the keepers could perform, as he was quite happy to follow food. So in order to improve his coordinated movement we got him walking up to the fence line, then having to change direction left and right, at intervals. After each set of movements he was positively rewarded with food.

This type of approach has also been successful in other areas of my work, especially with elephants. They are quick to learn, and adapt to any physical issues very fast. By making things fun it is also easier to get other people involved actively. Some members of staff even see it as a way of getting positively noticed by their employers!

The future

I would like to see osteopathy integrated much more into zoo and wildlife veterinary medicine. It has so much to offer that is still not understood outside of the profession itself.

Wildlife is always going to be under pressure from humans, so the more that can be done to understand and value our planet’s living resources the better.

I see a vast area where osteopathy can help with fertility and breeding programmes.

There is so much more scope to develop outreach projects where some of this work can be taught and utilized to support wild populations.

In certain cases, and if we look at how Olympic athletes now train, osteopathy could tip the balance positively for conservation.

At Zoo Ost Limited we already operate an outreach programme, which is steadily building upon the valuable field experience we have. Funding is the biggest hurdle, as it is for most groundbreaking ventures. We are always very keen to meet and chat with potential sponsors, and as a well known supermarket likes to claim, every little helps!

Tony Nevin, BSc (Hons) Ost, DO is Clinical Director on the MSc Animal Osteopathy programme, run

through the McTimoney College of Chiropractic, Oxon. He also lectures nationally and internationally; runs unique wildlife workshops; and is a prolific writer, presenter and broadcaster. His radio show “The Missing Link” on Corinium Radio is the only one of it’s kind and is rapidly gaining a loyal listenership. You can catch his earlier shows, and specialist podcasts by following his Mixcloud page titled Tony Nevin.

For more than 6 years he chaired the Society of Osteopaths in Animal Practice (SOAP) before it rebranded and became the Association of Animal Osteopaths (AAO).

For more information contact Tony at;

+44 7831 759339


Tony Nevin