A low mechanical buzz fills the air as Dr. Denise Fowler inserts a long pole with a flat-tipped grinder into the large white gelding’s mouth. The sedated horse blinks lazily as Fowler and her team brush and grind his teeth. As she files off the sharp edges and cleans his teeth, a new smell emanates from the horse’s mouth, it’s as if someone’s opened a fresh bag of Doritos mixed with the smell of fresh hay.
Dr. Fowler pauses her work and puts a hand inside the horse’s mouth to check for sharp edges. She reaches in nearly to her elbow before she begins grinding again.
“You know what sounds good for lunch?” Dr. Fowler asks her vet technicians.
The young women glance between each other and shrug.
“What’s that, Doc?” Roneyce, one of Fowler’s senior vet techs asks.
“Pho, and some eggrolls,” Dr. Fowler says with a smile.
She’s on a small farm, roughly an hour away from her clinic, performing routine osteopathic exams on two horses. Part of the routine exam is checking and filing the horse’s teeth, a process known in the veterinary world as “floating.” Left unchecked, Fowler explained, a horse’s teeth could cause problems, because their teeth naturally have uneven wear.
The morning is chilly, and a light drizzling rain is falling. The rain’s rhythmic tapping on the barn’s tin roof echoes slightly in the six-horse barn. Dr. Fowler’s regular clients are spread out across North Texas, because she is one of the few veterinarians familiar with less-common practices like osteopathy as well as traditional Chinese methods. Some of the farmers near the clinic may be distrustful of her less-conventional practices.
“I think the biggest part is taking the time to listen to the client and their concerns, and acknowledging that these animals are like family members,” Fowler said.
Fowler looks young for 41, with wavy chestnut colored hair and youthful skin. She wears a black vest over her traditional red scrubs as an attempt to stay warm in the cool barn. Her hazel eyes hold a wisdom that comes from her years of experience as a veterinarian. Her practice, Sulphur River Vet Clinic, is the only veterinary office within a 50-mile radius that offers traditional medicinal herbs and practices like acupuncture and osteopathy, in addition to pharmaceuticals.
After floating, Fowler examines the horses’ joints, muscles, and bones, looking for any irregularity.
His neck is tight, so she pops it using a chiropractic method. She circles his head with her arms, giving him a hug, her fists resting at the base of his skull. She squats, and there’s a quiet, yet satisfying pop.
Fowler’s love of horses stems from her childhood. Raised in Richardson, Texas, Fowler was eight years old when a friend introduced her to horseback riding. English riding is the most common equestrian discipline in the Dallas area, and Fowler eventually began to compete, balancing her riding along with her academic work and soccer.
“She got on that horse and it looked like she belonged on it,” Fowler’s mother commented.
“I’ve had horses ever since,” Fowler admitted.
Another influence in her life was reading James Herriot books about veterinary medicine. Her mother encouraged her love for science and pushed Fowler to own her own business. Fowler said she decided at a young age that she wanted to become a veterinarian.
In veterinarian school, everyone endures the same training. In undergrad, Fowler worked for the late Dr. Norris in Sulphur Springs. Norris practiced acupuncture and dentistry and taught Fowler some of his practices. She graduated in 2005 from Texas A&M University College of Veterinary Medicine. Her Aggie pride is evident from the familiar maroon-colored scrubs that she and her staff wear.
After vet school, Dr. Fowler knew she wanted to continue her studies of acupuncture to expand her depth in treatment protocols. She also added Chinese and Western herbs to her knowledge base. She studied these practices and refined her skills at the Chi Institute of Veterinary Chinese Medicine in Florida in 2006.
“I realized pretty quick that I was going to need to do chiropractic training. You can get a lot done with acupuncture and herbs, but sometimes you just need to ‘pop’ them or adjust them,” Fowler explained.
At a veterinary conference, Fowler ran into a friend, who’s also a vet. She suggested studying osteopathy at the Vluggen Institute for Equine Osteopathy and Education in San Marcos.
“I was like, what the heck is that?” Fowler joked, remembering her initial introduction to the skill before deciding to attend.
Osteopathy deals with connection between the muscles and skeleton system in the body. This is different than chiropractic techniques because chiropractors work mostly with spinal adjustments. Acupuncture is different from both, using needles and providing a form of local anesthesia relief.
In 2010, Dr. Fowler and her husband decided to settle near his hometown of Commerce, Texas. She was eight months pregnant when she started her own business out of a trailer house. Her focus was on having consistent clients, and she predominantly performed farm visits.
“I had my baby, and we put her in the truck, and started doing calls,” Fowler said.
Now, just 10 years later, not only has Dr. Fowler expanded her clientele, but she’s also managed to open an actual clinic near Commerce. Fowler still consistently makes farm visits, but finds it’s nice to have a space that clients can visit, bring smaller pets for evaluations, and a place where she can store herbal remedies and house necessary x-ray and other large equipment.
“You start with nothing, and it’s just hard to build that up. You have to have a lot of money and a lot of trust in God to bring the pieces together to help you, you know, get that money going and out of nowhere and be able to make the payments,” Fowler said.
One of the challenges that comes with owning your own business and having a country practice is financing. Fowler noted the cost for running a clinic was one that her clients often don’t consider.
The overhead of having a building, and taxes, ordering equipment and medicines, paying phone bills, and licensing and dues – it all adds up. Many customers have a hard time understanding why veterinary bills can sometimes be expensive. Fowler recognizes that clients in the area also struggle financially, and she does her best to offer medicines or herbs that might be cheaper alternatives.
“We were skeptical at first, but have come to appreciate Dr. Fowler and her holistic approach to animal health,” Laura Owens said.
Owens, a client of Dr. Fowler’s, has two aging horses and a donkey. She’s tried different supplements and herbs for their oldest gelding who’s been struggling with weight and thyroid problems. Under Fowler’s care, she’s seen an improvement in her horse’s agility and temperament.
“Now we just need to get him to lose a couple of pounds,” Owens joked.
Fowler has found it’s all about balance. Using alternative medicine, chiropractics, and acupuncture, both herbs and pharmaceuticals allows her a wider range of potential treatments to address problems. As Fowler put it, pharmaceutical drugs only tackle one issue, while herbs can help multiple problems.
In addition to keeping up with the traditional medicines, Fowler still needs to stay on the forefront of surgical procedures, and newest techniques available for diagnostics.
The research is there to back her up.
According to a 2019 study published by the American Journal of Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine, the findings supported the positive therapeutic role of Chinese herbal medicine in the rescue treatment of canine Inflammatory Bowel Disease (or IBD) and emphasized a field of research with potential for growth and development.
A second study, published by the American Journal of Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine, revealed that horses treated with laser acupuncture before a stressful event, like racing, had a statistically significant smaller heart rate increase than those treated with western medicines.
The success of both studies, in addition to Fowler’s personal success with traditional methods, is not only encouraging but provides a gateway for more research studies to examine the effectiveness of such treatments.
One of the most commonly used and prescribed herbal medicine is Shi Quan Da Bu Tang or the All-Inclusive Great Tonifying Decoction. This is a tonic herbal formula that treats general deficiency and weakness from injury, surgery, or chronic illness, and is also popular as a geriatric tonic. This medicine is frequently used in cancer treatments for humans and animals and promotes wound healing in animals with poor immune functions.
Dr. Fowler had a client whose dog had severe tumors all over, and she prescribed a product called Max’s formula. The formula helped the dog: improving his ability to move and slowing new tumor growth. But Fowler stressed that every case is unique.
“You may see three or four coughs in a row and every single cough is going to be different,” Fowler said.
Making the right diagnosis is paramount. Fowler stressed the importance of continuous learning. Figuring out what works best for one animal may not always work for another. Fowler noted that veterinarians ultimately must learn to trust their own intuition when it comes to helping each pet.
Next is his hindquarters. They’ve shifted, causing him to walk unevenly. It’s as if Fowler can tell this isn’t comfortable for the horse, and ultimately needs to be adjusted. Fowler holds her arms straight out, resting on either side of the gelding’s hips, visualizing the spot she wants to shift.
“Do you want me to do this one?” One of her vet students, Emma asks, reaching for the back-left leg of the white gelding.
Fowler grins, excited to share her knowledge with her mentees.
“Yeah! You’re going to pull it towards you and lift it up.” Dr. Fowler says.
Emma follows the instructions, and Fowler nods in approval. Fowler steps back to recheck the horse’s hips. She frowns, squinting at the horse’s hips.
One hand rests on his side, the other used to pull the opposite hip towards her. It takes a few tries to push the geldings’ hips back into alignment, but finally Dr. Fowler nods. A victorious smile spreads across her face, and she pats the horse’s back lightly for a job well done.
Fowler considers many opportunities in both her clinic and on house calls as teachable moments to share her veterinary knowledge with her all-female staff. Cultivating an all-female staff is something near and dear to Fowler’s heart. She wants to ensure her vet techs and student workers benefit under her mentorship; something Fowler never really had starting out.
“Most of my mentors were older men.” Fowler said.
She explained the difficulty of balancing being a mother, wife, and veterinarian.
“I think for a lot of men it’s hard for them to get that perspective.” Dr. Fowler continues. “Females should have a mentor to try to learn under; another female vet that has a similar situation to how they want to mold their life.”
Fowler strives to have a life worth molding. Dr. Fowler’s office houses a basket of small plastic horses and children’s toys for her young daughter, Maggie, who frequently visits the clinic. A daughter who takes after her mother with a love of horses.
Dr. Fowler smiles at a photo on her wall of Maggie and Fowler’s husband. Fowler has continued her love of riding by competing with her daughter in pony and dressage shows. She believes her background in veterinary medicine helps her as a rider to ride correctly, not impede on the horses. It appears the horse enjoys riding as much as she does.
The COVID pandemic has cancelled some tournaments and caused others to increase their regulations. But the pandemic won’t stop Fowler from riding horses anytime soon.
However, there have been other challenges with the pandemic. Dr. Fowler found herself in need of more staff members after one assistant contracted COVID and others were isolating. It was just Fowler, the secretary, and one vet tech. So, she hired a few more female vet students to add to her crew. COVID has also caused the staff to increase safety practices around the clinic such as wearing masks, social distancing with clients, as well as offering curbside services.
“The first week of COVID, there was absolutely nothing,” Fowler said. “And then the second week, the phone started ringing and it hasn’t stopped.”
Dr. Fowler smiles as she takes a brief break to eat some soup for lunch, watching her clinic in motion. Technicians bustle about: checking on dogs and researching medicines, and even animal travel laws. She doesn’t get a lot of breaks, but from the glint in her eye you can tell it doesn’t matter, because she loves what she does.
She has a unique ability to understand her clients’ needs and provide insight into the animals’ feelings.
“I think as a veterinarian, you want to be perfect.” Fowler continued. “It’s not for the faint of heart.”
And Fowler is not faint of heart.
Citations: Beebe, S. E. (2019). Cantwell, S. L. (2010). Google Maps. (2020). Jing Ying Chan, M. (2019). What is equine osteopathy? (2017, June 17). Ying, W., Bhattacharjee, A., & Wu, S. S. (2019).