It may sound futuristic, but cold laser therapy for dogs is based on scientific principles that have been in place since the beginning of time.
As we see in nature, light influences biological systems and cells.
“We know that because of photosynthesis,” says Dr. David MacDonald, “The light from the sun helps plants grow. That’s a biochemical process that we understand.”
When we are outdoors, he adds, our skin absorbs the sunlight and boosts our Vitamin D levels.
“All of these things are general principles of science and understanding what light does,” Dr. MacDonald says.
Dr. MacDonald joined the Doylestown Veterinary Hospital team in 2014. He has been in practice for 22 years. Lasers, he says, have been on the scene for approximately 60. Almost 12 years ago, Dr. MacDonald started practicing holistic medicine, and as a result, began seeking additional means of healing without the need to resort to another pill.
With cold laser therapy for dogs, “we’re using a light source that is very particular and very condensed. It’s uniformed and targeted.”
Instead of standing out in the wide beams of the sun, a laser can be focused locally to accomplish healing. It’s called “photobiomodulation,” and it works by changing activity within an animal’s biological systems to produce the desired benefit. It has been shown to reduce the inflammation of soft tissue, increase blood flow, and release fluid build-up (known as edema) in body tissue.
“What that comes down to is it’s effective in reducing pain,” he says. “It has excellent anti-inflammatory effects. It accelerates healing, and it helps with tissue regeneration and repair.”
All Animals Can Benefit from Laser Therapy
There may be a misconception that cold laser therapy is only for senior animals.
The truth is that almost every pet Dr. MacDonald and his fellow veterinarians treat will eventually have needs that could benefit from targeted laser treatment.
- Acute Injury
Consider a young dog running across a field, chasing a squirrel, Dr. MacDonald says. The dog takes a bad turn and sprains his ankle. This is known as an acute inflammatory process and laser treatment could be used to reduce pain and inflammation while helping the injured tissue heal and regenerate at a faster rate.
- Surgical Procedures
At Doylestown Veterinary Hospital, cold laser therapy for dogs is also used during most surgical procedures, from six-month-old dogs being spayed or neutered to other surgeries that become necessary later in life.
“Any animal that has surgery has an incision,” says Dr. MacDonald. “Laser therapy helps kickstart the healing process while they’re still on the surgery table. It’s a good way of telling the body, ‘Hey, this tissue needs to heal because of this incision,’ and it is a good way to steer them in the right direction.”
- Dental Care
Dr. MacDonald and the Doylestown team regularly perform dental work on dogs, and laser therapy has become commonplace for animals under anesthesia to have teeth extracted.
“When you do an extraction, you stitch up the site like you would any other part of the body that had an incision. Laser treatments on those extraction sites can stimulate healing processes at the very beginning,” he says.
- Joint Care
Many of Doylestown Veterinary Hospital’s older patients do rely on cold laser therapy to ease aching joints. Senior dogs may have arthritis or pain and discomfort from a torn ligament in their knee or a similar condition. “They need an opportunity for pain relief,” says Dr. MacDonald.
“We certainly do see a lot of patients on a semi-regular basis, where laser therapy is used for routine joint care,” he continues. “These are typically older dogs who are already on pain medication, but may need an extra boost.”
Laser Therapy is Also Needle (and Stress) Free
Dr. MacDonald has the unique ability to blend both modern techniques with his practice of Chinese herbal medicine and is a certified veterinary acupuncturist (CVA).
Because laser treatments operate using a condensed pinprick of light, they can stimulate acupuncture points without penetrating the skin tissue like a needle would. This is particularly beneficial for some animals – like cats – who are incredibly sensitive to needles, and particular about their bodies in general.
“There are acupuncture points found over most of the body,” Dr. MacDonald explains. “There’s less of a sensation when the needles are used on the torso, especially the back. We touch a lot of acupuncture points along the spine, and most animals tolerate that very well. But as you go away from the body, through the extremities, through their arms, down toward the toes, those spots are more sensitive. Some animals don’t want you to touch their feet. They may be nervous because they associate it with getting their nails trimmed, etc. These animals tend to tolerate the laser for those particular points compared to a needle.”
Lasting Results without Pain or Side Effects
Animals receiving treatment for routine joint care and pain relief are never sedated since cold laser therapy for dogs is painless, and practically void of sensation entirely.
“If you think of a light source as being hot, these lasers utilize a wavelength that does not generate heat.” The result? Treatments don’t feel like much of anything at all.
“Some dogs might experience a slight sensation of warmth, in the same way your hand might be warm if you placed it near a radiator,” says Dr. MacDonald. “It’s not hot. It doesn’t burn. There might be a light sensation, but there’s no real degree of discomfort.”
Animals with darker coats or skin are the only notable exception, he says, as dark surfaces tend to absorb more heat. Even so, the degree of sensation would be low, requiring slight fine-tuning of protocols to rule out any irritation.
Dr. MacDonald is quick to point out that therapeutic results are not automatic.
“It’s not like animals immediately feel jet-fueled,” he says. “They’re not energized in that way. But they also don’t feel any negative effects, either. They won’t be unduly tired or feel sick in other ways. There’s not much change from the time they walk into the office, to the time they walk out. But the payoff is that they experience a change in their inflammatory process or pain sensations that then play out over the next few days.”
“Over time, we see a real change in their physiology.”
A Fully Integrated Approach to Dog Health Care
“When you have multiple tools to use, you’re always doing better,” says Dr. MacDonald, noting that without cold laser therapy for dogs, he and his fellow veterinarians would be limited in the ways they can help animals.
“We have many different ways of using laser therapy in conjunction with acupuncture and chiropractic care or herbal treatments or nutrition. All of these things work better when used with something else that is decreasing pain and decreasing inflammation and helping the body heal and regenerate in a way that’s in tune with what the body wants to do. It’s not like one thing fixes everything else. Everything works nicely together.”
Dr. MacDonald says the benefits of laser therapy are far-reaching and should not be simply relegated to “joint care.”
There are so many chronic diseases in which inflammation plays a role. It can help with ear problems, or discomfort that causes animals to chronically lick, chew, and self-mutilate. It can aid in the treatment of internal diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease or pancreatitis, and other inflammatory conditions that are much deeper-seated in the body.
“There’s no reason you can’t use laser treatment for these conditions, as well,” he says. “Once you’ve looked through a wide lens of how we can help animals with inflammation, laser therapy becomes another tool. And again, never by itself – always in conjunction with other treatments. This helps us to improve our patients’ overall state of health.”