Stem cell therapy goes to the dogs
Things were getting bad for Doodle. Despite her youthful name, the 9-year-old German Shepherd was experiencing joint pain from bilateral hip dysplasia and osteoarthritis. She would get sore and tired from long weekend walks and started falling up the stairs.
Her owners, the Dahl family of Oak Brook, had tried different options before landing on animal stem cell regenerative therapy, a procedure that’s a hot topic in the veterinary world. Last week, Doodle received reportedly the first such one-day operation in Illinois at the Veterinary Specialty Center in Buffalo Grove.
The practice of using stem cells, derived from the animal’s fat, to treat joint problems could be discouraging for pet owners because of cost and timing. The animal used to have to go twice to a vet hospital: once for surgery to remove fat cells and once again for the injection of the stem cells into the inflamed joint. The cost was around $2,700.
Leslie Dahl, Doodle’s owner and a veterinarian herself, didn’t want to go that route. She had tried anti-inflammatory medication, but Doodle’s stomach couldn’t handle it. She tried collagen injections, but they didn’t fully relieve Doodle of her pain. Plus, the animal already was difficult at the vet’s and she was concerned that Doodle would get too anxious between the visits.
So when the Veterinary Specialty Center started looking into a new procedure that allows the stem cells to be processed in the same facility on the same day for about $1,900, Dahl was intrigued.
The process is essentially the same. Fat is removed and then processed by being put in a centrifuge and spun until the stoma stem cells are separated. They are then isolated, activated and injected back into the animal.
In the clinic before a lab was established, the cells were shipped to California, said Mitch Robbins, a surgeon at the Veterinary Specialty Center. The pet would be under anesthesia for removal of the cells, then a second time for the re-injection.
Doodle’s operation, and that of another dog called Fergus, were the center’s firsts in which the stem cells were processed in house, Robbins said.
He said he’s seen about 70 to 80 percent of the animals improve significantly with the treatment that’ s been available since about 2005.
“It’s been around for a little while,” said Kimberly May, a veterinarian and assistant director of professional and public affairs for the Schaumburg-based American Veterinary Medical Association. “We’ve actually been using it in horses for quite a while; now it’s being promoted for joint disease and hip dysphasia. It’s definitely growing, especially for pet owners who are hearing all these anecdotal stories.”
Research is progressing on the treatment’s effectiveness, May said.
“You find out what it really works for and where it doesn’t work,” she said. “We’re still in that stage with the stem cell procedures.”
Robbins said success depends on the animal’s ailments. Pets that don’t respond may be experiencing pain from a source other than inflammation of the tissues around the joint.
“Some dogs do better, some do worse, some don’t respond at all,” he said.
On average, the animals he treats get re-injected every 18 months, he said. The cells can be stored, with subsequent procedures costing about $600.
Robbins believes the one-day procedure and lower cost will encourage more pet owners to help out their older dogs with arthritis or inflammatory problems. Dahl said her family would have had to euthanize Doodle if pain prevented her from moving, but that would have been a really tough decision since they embrace the dog’s quirky personality.
So far, Doodle’s recovery has been going well. It takes about 10 days to heal from the initial surgery and about four to five weeks to see results.
Doodle is still throwing balls to herself and performing stuffed animal tricks, but is not quite back to going up and down stairs.
“I don’t expect this is going to be a magic bullet to give her back her youth,” Dahl said. “But to get her where she’s not falling and she’s not in pain after going for just a moderate walk, that’s quality of life.