Stem Cell Therapy For Dogs: Everything You Need to Know
This innovative treatment has its pros and cons — but it may be an effective treatment for conditions like osteoarthritis.
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When weekend hikes with your dog gradually turn into slow strolls around the block, energetic games of fetch or frisbee become rare, and even standing up after a nap becomes a daunting task for your dog, osteoarthritis may be to blame.
It can be difficult to watch your dog age and become increasingly stiff and less interested in play, but the reality is, osteoarthritis affects nearly one in every five dogs. It’s a progressive, chronic degeneration of cartilage that can occur in various joints at almost any age, and the pain it causes can be debilitating.
The disease most commonly affects geriatric pets, specifically in the hip, stifle (knee), or elbow. However, it’s also often seen in dogs with hip or elbow dysplasia as young as one to two years old. Treatments range from supplements and anti-inflammatory medications to surgical intervention. But the most innovative treatment these days is stem cell therapy.
What is Stem Cell Therapy for Dogs?
Over the last decade, stem cell therapy has become more common in veterinary practice. Stem cells are the body’s way of regenerating itself. As biological “blank slates,” they have the potential to morph into many cell types — skin, muscle, nerve, bone, tendon, or ligament — and virtually any organ. They can also be found in every organ in the body.
In dogs, the stem cell therapy process is relatively straightforward. Stem cells are either embryonic or somatic (adult), the latter of which can be retrieved from bone marrow or adipose tissue (fat). Because fat tissue is easier to collect from dogs themselves, that’s the more frequented option. Plus, there’s a convenience factor in that fat-derived stem cells don’t need to be cultured and can be sent for processing and returned in as little as 48 hours.
Harvesting the fat is much less invasive than a spay. It is commonly taken from the shoulder, lumbar region, or falciform ligament (a fatty ligament attaching the liver to the body wall). The 20-minute surgery is performed under general anesthesia and the fat is then sent to a laboratory where it yields a product called stromal vascular fraction (SVF).
Once the SVF is in hand, the veterinarian will sedate the dog and inject it into the affected joint(s); it may also be injected into the bloodstream intravenously. Any remaining SVF is usually stored for future treatments.
How Safe is Stem Cell Therapy for Dogs?
As with any surgery, there is risk when undergoing anesthesia to harvest the fat tissue, however, stem cell therapy is generally very safe. And because SVF is derived from the dog’s own cells, the rate of immune reactions is extremely low.
How Much Does Stem Cell Therapy Cost?
Treating dogs with stem cell therapy isn’t easy on the wallet. Surgery, processing, and the initial injection can range between $2,000 and $3,000, close to the cost of some surgical treatments. Effectiveness is also not guaranteed, and surgery may still be required if stem cell therapy fails.
Dr. Samuel Franklin, assistant professor of small animal orthopedic surgery at the University of Georgia, says the value of stem cell therapy for dogs depends on a case-by-case assessment. “It’s all about pros and cons — [deciding] what will be best for the patient,” he says.
When is Stem Cell Therapy the Best Option?
According to Dr. Franklin, a good candidate for stem cell therapy “has failed treatment with less invasive and less expensive treatment and has arthritis that does not benefit from surgery.” Franklin also notes that while stem cell therapy helps modulate inflammation, “stem cells do not regenerate cartilage.”
In 2005, Dr. Brian Voynick of the American Animal Hospital in Randolph, New Jersey was the first U.S. veterinarian to use stem cell therapy in dogs. He recommends it for young dogs with early signs of hip dysplasia and lameness because it’s less invasive and more proactive than surgery.
How Effective is Stem Cell Therapy for Dogs?
“In cases of hip dysplasia, we see [improvement in] greater than 90% of cases — better mobility, less or no lameness, and increased quality of life. Sometimes, we see improvement on radiographs,” Voynick explains.
These results are most likely when the therapy is used in conjunction with platelet rich plasma (PRP), a concentrated mix of platelets and growth factors taken from the patient’s own blood. According to Voynick, PRP turbocharges the cells’ activation. Once injected, stem cells have an anti-inflammatory effect within the joint and contribute to the reformation and architectural integrity of the tissues.
Voynick recalls one case of a dog with severe hip osteoarthritis treated with stem cell therapy and PRP. “[Before treatment] she could not stand up from a lying position. Three days later, she was walking and wagging her tail,” he says.
But the response to treatment isn’t always so dramatic. Improvement in lameness and pain is sometimes seen within the first week, but it more commonly comes within a period of about 90 days. The exact duration of the injection’s effectiveness is not known, but it is thought that, at least initially, monthly injections are most beneficial. Patients are rechecked at 30, 60, and 90 days post-treatment, and injections may be repeated if lameness returns.
Stem Cell Therapy for CCL Injuries
Stem cell therapy is also being used for osteoarthritis resulting from cranial cruciate ligament (CCL) injuries. This common injury of the canine knee is more often seen in large-breed dogs but can affect dogs of all sizes. CCL injuries may be treated medically with rest and medication, or they may require surgery.
“With a full [CCL] tear, we want the stabilization of surgery,” says Voynick. However, he adds that stem cell therapy can be beneficial postoperatively during rehabilitation, especially if the injury comes with muscle loss.
Should You Try Stem Cell Therapy For Your Dog?
Although stem cell therapy has helped many animals, Franklin warns that more research is needed to support its comprehensive role in veterinary care. “There is no evidence that [stem cell therapy] is any more beneficial than other treatments that are less invasive and less expensive,” he adds. Among these treatments are injections of hyaluronic acid, steroids, or PRP. Plus, stem cell therapy has its limitations, and “should not be used in patients with infections or cancer,” Franklin explains. “Stem cells target inflammation and can exacerbate disease in these cases.”
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Megan Cassels-Conway, DVM
Dr. Megan Cassels-Conway, DVM currently practices at the Elk County Veterinary Clinic in north-central Pennsylvania. Her interests lie in preventive medicine, surgery and client education.