Like many veterinarians, Ashleigh Davis-Bergsohn DVM’13 grew up surrounded by pets. However, it was witnessing the family veterinarian’s heartfelt, at-home euthanasia of the Davises’ terminally ill dog that set her on the path toward a career in loving animals by caring for them. “I remember seeing him cry and wanting to be able to help other people get through difficult times like that in the way that he had been able to help us, and to have that kind of attachment and emotional connection to the animals,” she says.
Davis wasted no time in building her résumé. In the sixth grade, she shadowed a veterinarian at the local Saint Louis Zoo. In high school, she volunteered with small-animal and equine veterinarians. She attended undergrad at Cornell University, where she later conducted research with an equine orthopedic surgeon before coming to the UW School of Veterinary Medicine. After graduation, she worked as an ambulatory equine veterinarian before joining Monticello Raceway in New York, where she ensured that the horses were fit to race and evaluated their injuries. But because she was monitoring the horses at Monticello, she couldn’t practice on them as patients.
“I wanted to use more of the knowledge that I had spent all those years learning,” Davis says. “The reason that I love veterinary medicine is diagnostics, thinking through problem-solving and best ways to treat different diseases.”
Seeking a balance between family time and a fulfilling veterinary career, Davis became certified in equine and small-animal acupuncture and opened Integrative Veterinary Services (IVS), a practice that offers Eastern medicinal services along with veterinarian-performed equine dentistry. In 2022, Davis transitioned from equine care at Monticello to small-animal care at a local animal hospital while continuing her work with IVS. She’s also a board member with the Multicultural Veterinary Medical Association (MCVMA), an organization that provides community and support for veterinarians of color. For Davis, a career in veterinary care entails not only caring for those with tails, but caring for veterinarians, too.
How do equine dentistry and acupuncture offer you a unique approach to medicine and enhance the health of your patients?
What saddens me about veterinary medicine is when you get these cases [in which] you’ve done everything you can, and you’re not making headway … and you’re at the extent of all the medications, and we can’t keep this animal comfortable. I was trying to see what else we can do for these animals. I had seen people do [acupuncture] a lot in the showing field when I was doing my internship. A lot of people were using it on the competitive show jumpers and dressage horses, and actually seeing the difference almost right away was really amazing — and to have something that’s so noninvasive. You’re not injecting a substance anywhere; you’re not causing more harm. A lot of the treatments in Western medicine, even though they’re really beneficial, also have a lot of side effects. Acupuncture doesn’t have side effects. I’m also realistic about it. If you have a fractured leg, I’m not going to fix it with acupuncture. You’re going to need more treatment than that. But I like it as an adjunct treatment to a lot of things.
[It’s a] similar thing with dentistry: a lot of times it gets overlooked because people don’t look in your horse’s mouth very often, so I’m always surprised when some horses that are super old have great teeth and some horses that are supposedly really well taken care of have terrible teeth. It’s something that really helps [the horses] a lot, and it’s easy to fix. While we have our teeth and they’re just one size our whole life, [horses’] teeth are all the way up into their sinuses and they grow down into their mouth throughout their life because they grind away at their teeth by eating hay and grain all the time. So, depending on how they eat, if they have jaw pain, if they have problems in their mouth, their teeth may wear away in ways that cause more ulcers to their cheeks, ulcers to their tongues. It may cause them to be reluctant to move forward or to hold the bit correctly in their mouth or cause pain in general, and/or can cause digestive issues if they’re not able to chew properly and get the food small enough to be able to process it adequately. That’s really rewarding to be able to go in and be like, “Oh, I see the problem here. Let me fix this.” Now we’ve made a huge improvement in the quality of the animal’s life without really having to do a lot to them.
I like being able to see the result of my work; being able to do that and then have a difference right away is really gratifying to me and the owners and improves the life of the horse. Acupuncture and dentistry are two ways that I have found that I can do that. There are a lot of equine dentists out there who [are] not technically veterinarians, so they’re not allowed to use sedation, which I think prevents you from doing as good of a job because if you’re trying to get in the back of their mouth, [the horse is] going to start gagging, and you can only do so much without sedation. I think we need to have more veterinarians out there doing equine dentistry and performing it the correct way to show people the benefit of having a veterinarian do it versus having an equine dentist.
It’s another reason I’m out there trying to be an example for the veterinary profession of practicing medicine correctly. But I like to be able to see those results. I like to be able to feel — the way you evaluate horses in Eastern medicine. You feel their pulses; you look at their tongue color; you feel for heat in certain areas of their body. And being able to show the owner, “Look, the tongue is purple,” or, “There’s heat over this area.” Then, I do my treatment for 30 minutes. Now, the heat’s gone. The tongue has changed colors. The pulses feel different. That’s really gratifying, for me, to be able to say [I’m] actually doing something that’s helping your animal.
How do you do a horse’s dental exam?
It’s called floating their teeth: it’s basically filing down the sharp points of their teeth and making sure the occlusal surfaces, the surfaces of the top and bottom teeth that hit each other, are able to hit each other in an even way so that they can chew appropriately. We do a physical exam to make sure their heart and lungs are fine before sedating them, and then I let them sit for 10 minutes or so, so they really are calm. Then we put in what’s called a speculum: it’s like metal plates that go in their mouth, and you open it up so that they can’t close their mouth on you. I have a headstand, a tall thing that has a padded cushion on top that I set their head on while they’re sedated. Then you do an exam. I usually have a headlight, and I’m looking in their mouth. I put my hands in, feeling for all the points, looking to see if I see ulcers on their cheeks or on their tongues from sharp points. Typically, the sharp points are going to be on the outside of the tops and inside of the bottoms because they chew in a circular motion. You want to see if there are any teeth that are missing, see if there are any spaces between teeth. Then you look for the sharp points on the teeth that need to be filed down. We don’t really floss their teeth. We do look for areas where there’s pocketing [between the gums and the teeth] or a space between teeth and stuff getting stuck in there, and we’ll try to flush it out. We also look for loose, fractured teeth that may have to come out. At the end, I’ll actually take their jaw and rotate it the way they chew to make sure that I can hear the noise of the teeth rubbing against each other, that they are crunching nicely and actually opposing each other, to make sure I didn’t miss anything or they’re not getting stuck when I’m moving it.
Can you share a patient or case that was particularly memorable?
There was a dog that had been coming into the clinic that I now work at. Something autoimmune was going on but was never fully diagnosed, but it had this wound on its side — on a hotspot, where they lick too much — and it eventually just kind of never healed. The dog also had a very severe heart murmur, so everybody was worried about putting it under anesthesia, but [the wound] started spreading, and it was a huge open wound on the side of the dog. It was a small dog, and the wound was almost two and a half inches [wide] all the way down the whole side of the body. They’ve gone to surgery. They went to a specialty clinic to make sure it was okay with his heart issues. They tried to suture it back together, [but] it just fell apart. They were having no success with it. It was an older dog, and we had done basically everything Western medicine could have done for this dog, and it just was not getting any better. I said, “Well, what about acupuncture?”
It couldn’t hurt. It may not help, but I can put needles around the area to try and bring more blood to the area. I can put needles in for the dog’s constitution to try and support personality types. I could put points in that are away from the lesion so I’m not poking right into his area that’s painful, and they can still do the same work because the acupuncture points are symmetrical: whatever’s on the right side is also on the left. He had the wound on the left side, so I could do all the points on the right, never even touch the left side, and still have the same effect. And we had a laser in our practice, and I said, “Let’s use laser acupuncture points.”
So we did acupuncture on him. I probably did four or five treatments. I usually spread them out about a week, and I say whenever I’m doing acupuncture treatment to give me at least three treatments to see how much we’re going to get from it. He wasn’t eating well, he was just laying around all the time, and after the second treatment, [the owner said], “He’s eating better. He’s acting happier.” We actually started to get some skin growing between the two areas where nothing was doing anything before. I’m not sure if it was just through the acupuncture, because we were also doing laser at the same time, but it was really exciting to see, like, “Hey, we’re helping this dog.” … The owner was really attached to this dog (like most people are), but this dog had gotten her through a lot of things, so we were trying to do everything we could to give him the highest quality of life for as long as possible. Those kinds of moments are really cool and validating. There’s a reason we’re doing this; it does work.
How have you seen representation in this field change since you first entered it? How does the MCVMA continue that work?
Unfortunately, it hasn’t changed as much as we would’ve liked it to. And I think the change comes in fits and spurts. I think we saw a lot of professed dedication to increasing the diversity and equity in our field after the George Floyd situation in 2020, when I think a lot of businesses and a lot of people were pushed to try and reconcile what happened, especially because it was on video. But I think that has kind of fizzled out a little bit now that it’s less in people’s mind than it was then.
In general, there has been an increase in the number of accepted students and veterinarians who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC). Still, our profession has less than 2 percent Black veterinarians in the whole country. When you look at that as obviously not representative of the population, and then you try to backtrack and figure out why that is. What is the reason? Is it because people aren’t interested in it? Because they aren’t being exposed to it? I think it’s multifactorial, and I think that’s why it’s important for us as BIPOC veterinarians to be really visible in the field, because when you don’t see somebody who looks like you doing something, it’s harder to imagine yourself doing it.
I also think it’s because the system has kind of made it difficult for people to get there. The application process is very expensive. You’re expected to do a lot of volunteer hours to be able to get into that profession, which, if you have to work to go to school or to help support your family, it’s pretty much impossible to be volunteering on top of that, enough hours to be able to compete. If you don’t have somebody in your family who understands the process of applying to college, going to college, going to graduate schools, going through that application process, it’s very hard to just learn it yourself.
And then there’s also the issue of discrimination and racism that also comes into play. People don’t think you should be applying there, or they don’t encourage you to, or they don’t suggest it as a career path even if you are good at science or math or are interested in it. I think there have been more programs developed to help out with the pipeline of BIPOC individuals into veterinary school, but the reason that the MCVMA was really important and the reason I really wanted to join it was because once you get out of vet school, there’s not really anything. There is some support and scholarships and things to help you get into veterinary school — there are even some programs and organizations while you’re in veterinary school to help support you. But when you get out, you’re just on your own. The MCVMA was that creation of a community to help support veterinarians once they’re out of that school, to help us have a community of people. Because there’s so few of us, most of us don’t have somebody else even within the vicinity of where we live or work. I don’t work with any other BIPOC veterinarians, and most people don’t. Most people are one, [or] maybe have always been the only one at any practice they’ve worked at, and that’s unfortunate. But because of that, you sometimes can feel like your interpretation of what’s going on or any microaggressions that you may feel toward you are invalid or not really as big of a deal as you feel they are. Having a community of people who can validate those experiences and say, “That shouldn’t be said,” [or], “You’re right. That did happen because of someone’s prejudice,” is validating.
It’s good to have a community of people to be able to talk to about what [to] do then when this happens, the steps that I can take, [and] how I can make it more inclusive. I think our mission at the MCVMA is to try and figure out ways to make it feel more inclusive for people once they come out [of veterinary school] so they don’t feel like they’re the only one that they’ve ever seen or known in their area, that there are people they can reach out to, that they have a support system, and that there are other people like them working toward making it feel more equitable. [We’re also] encouraging more young veterinarians or young people who are thinking about becoming vets that, yeah, once you get out there, there is a place for you. You will feel included. You’re not going to be the only one going through these things.
There’s still plenty of veterinarians who don’t think diversity is an issue. They say, “I know Black veterinarians. I know Hispanic veterinarians.” That’s not the point. It’s not the point that you know one person who’s Black. The point is that it’s not equal to the population, and that’s not because people aren’t interested in it. It’s because there are barriers in the way to people becoming veterinarians, and one of those barriers is whether you feel included. Do you feel like you could practice and [that] people trust you? Do you feel like you could practice and [that] people respect you the same as they do your white colleagues? Oftentimes, unfortunately, that’s not the case, so having that community of people to be able to figure that all out with is really important.