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Off the Beaten Path

On that first day, Wendy Ying was a skeptic.  

She had a bachelor’s degree in molecular biology and underwent the typical course of veterinary medicine study at the NC State College of Veterinary Medicine, followed by a job practicing equine dentistry.

But here she was, just a few years after her 1999 graduation, about to take a class on equine acupuncture from a school specializing in traditional Chinese veterinary medicine.

“When I came into it I was more like, prove to me that this works,” said Ying. “A lot of us were vets and scientists. Holistic therapy seemed like magic.”

But that first class at the Chi Institute won her over. It was taught by a board-certified veterinary neurologist. Ying immediately understood — and appreciated — the value of these additional approaches to veterinary medicine.

And her work began.

She soon launched 5 Elements for Animals, a mobile veterinary practice specializing in traditional Chinese veterinary medicine for a range of animals but mostly horses, dogs and cats. Nearly 14 years later, the Sarasota, Fla.-based business is still going strong, offering both preventative vet health care — vaccinations, deworming, behavior consultations — supplemented by treatments such as herbal therapies and equine acupuncture. Ying’s husband, Kyle Swanson, is 5 Elements’ certified animal chiropractor, who holds a doctor of chiropractic degree.

Ying also values Western medicine; she still practices it. But she’s a firm believer that TCVM treatments — alone or in conjunction with more conventional medicine — provide a thorough path to wellness, helping everything from joint and muscle pain to anxiety.

“After that first day of classes,” said Ying, “I realized that the whole area of Chinese medicine I wanted to pursue would make me a better practitioner, too.”

Modern Twist on Tradition

On a basic level, traditional Chinese veterinary medicine adapts much of the same techniques as traditional Chinese medicine for humans. The approach takes into account the strength of one’s “chi” or life force, the yin-yang concept of inner harmony and a consideration of a patient’s temperament and environment when evaluating a disease.

Ying’s veterinary service’s name reflects both the ancient Chinese belief of a yearly five-season cycle — spring, summer, late summer, autumn and winter — and those seasons’ corresponding elements: wood, fire, earth, metal and water. The four branches of TCVM are acupuncture, herbal medicine, food therapy (diet adjustment) and tui-na, a form of medical massage.

“In traditional Chinese veterinary medicine, the major points reflect that the body needs to be in a state of balance, and that’s the same for traditional Chinese medicine and conventional medicine,” said Ying. “With allergies, your immune system is overreacting and conventional medicine uses pharmaceuticals for that. In Chinese medicine, we would add in acupuncture, herbal therapy and food therapy.”

In short, TCVM is typically viewed — and used — as a holistic complement to Western veterinary medicine — and that’s how Ying sees it as well.

Many private practices and veterinary hospitals offer acupuncture therapy for equine patients.

She runs 5 Elements as a specialty practice, consistently working with the primary care veterinarians of clients to create a team approach to an animal’s treatment. When she is called to treat a horse with arthritis, she may urge a client to talk to a general medicine veterinarian and get X-rays before going down an acupuncture path.

The result: Many primary care vets refer their clients to Ying’s services and Ying often refers clients to primary care vets.

“That approach has really helped me win over local veterinarians,” she said. “In the beginning, the hardest part was proving that I wasn’t crazy. When I started, I had to really defend it.  Now I would say that I could easily walk into any veterinary practice with no problem. We’re working together.”

Acceptance and demand for traditional Chinese veterinary medicine techniques has grown over the decade since Ying began 5 Elements. Many private practices and veterinary hospitals offer acupuncture therapy (the NC State Veterinary Hospital offers it as part of its rehabilitation and mobility service for small animals).

In 2014, the American Veterinary Medical Association formally recognized the American Academy of Veterinary Acupuncture as a constituent allied veterinary organization.

Ying said that when she first took that class at the Chi Institute, there were just 30 people in her acupuncture class. Now, after earning an advanced degree from the institute, she’s there teaching acupuncture herself. There are 160 people in her class.

“Clients are requesting the treatments from their vets,” said Ying. “They want natural health. They want to try something new.”

A Life Less Ordinary

Photo courtesy of Wendy Ying

Ying grew up in Lawrence, Mass., about 20 minutes away from Boston, but always dreamed of being a rural veterinarian and living in the country. She rode horses as a child, but over time gravitated to the world of horse driving — carriages, wagons, any type of horse-drawn vehicle.

She’s also the co-host of the Driving Radio Show, a podcast on the Horse Radio Network. On her show, she recently interviewed Oscar Fletcher, the CVM’s dean when Ying was a student.

Oh, and she’s probably the only CVM graduate who can put “District 12 chariot stunt driver for the film ‘The Hunger Games: Catching Fire’” on her resume.

“I’m not the type of person who likes to go to an office every day,” she said.

Which is good, since the instantly engaging and down-to-earth Ying is out and about most of the time, traveling from barn to barn and house to house. She sees as many as eight animals a day with a wide range of medical needs.

“It’s a different adventure every day,” said Ying. “You don’t really know what’s going to happen. You never really know what you’re going to see.”

Ying embraces change. After earning her bachelor’s in molecular biology from San Jose State University, she worked in a lab in the area. She loved the scientific work, but not-so much sitting in a lab day after day — “I didn’t want to live my life in the lab,” she said. So she applied to veterinary school to feed her passions for animals and science. Sealing the deal to come to the CVM, the outdoor Teaching Animal Unit. What Ying craved most was hands-on experience.

Immediately, the CVM felt like the right choice. She said working with other students was encouraged by faculty, who told her class that after graduation, eschewing competitiveness for cooperation with colleagues was of paramount importance.

“We were told to always remember that these people are worried,” she said. “The animals are sick, and the people are the ones that you really have to help, too.”

And when Ying first worked clinics at the Veterinary Hospital, she said she learned that the animals weren’t her only clients. “We were told to always remember that these people are worried,” she said. “The animals are sick, and the people are the ones that you really have to help, too.”

Both are lessons she still carries with her when she partners with referring primary care veterinarians and works closely with animal owners to create wellness plans.

“When we first got there, I remember all the professors would say, ‘You’re a doctor now. Refer to yourself as a doctor,’” Ying said. “They never treated us like we were little nobodies; they always treated us like colleagues. When you get to the vet school, it’s the first time in your adult life that you’re getting that kind of respect.”

Like earning a DVM, starting 5 Elements was another big life change for Ying. Around the same time she moved to Florida, she also decided to go all-in with traditional Chinese veterinary medicine.

It took a year to get her business up and running, but took years to form partnerships with hesitant veterinarians. But at the heart of Ying’s work is the motivation all veterinarians share — to make a living being feel better again.

Ying’s techniques just get to that result in a different way.

“The most fulfilling aspect of my work is when I see animals who have a chronic disease and their owners are thinking, ‘Oh, this is it. I have to retire these horses,’” said Ying. “And it may take a while, but they get back on them.

“They thought it was over. It wasn’t.”

~Jordan Bartel/NC State Veterinary Medicine