Doylestown Veterinary Hospital & Holistic Pet Care recently began offering stem cell and platelet-rich plasma therapy for pets.
Conducted in collaboration with Ardent Animal Health, these same-day procedures are generating astounding results in animals suffering from osteoarthritis, hip dysplasia, and other degenerative and inflammatory diseases.
But people may have many questions, says Dr. Laura Weis, DVM, and co-owner of Doylestown Veterinary Hospital. So, she and Doylestown’s Dr. Jerica Lugo, VMD, are helping patients and procedure candidates learn more about this safe and efficient means of reducing pain.
Understanding Stem Cell Therapy for Pets
When people think about stem cells, they often think “fetus,” says Dr. Weis. In veterinary medicine, this is not the case.
“Stem cell procedures conducted in your veterinary office are autologous, which means ‘of your own’ or ‘of self,’” says Dr. Weis.
There are many different places on an animal’s body where stem cells can be harvested, Dr. Weis explains – but one of the richest is actually in the fat tissue.
“Bone marrow is another, but fat is actually the best,” she says.
For dogs, stem cell therapy involves a brief surgical procedure where fat is typically collected from the abdomen. Collection can occur at any point during a pet’s life, but for savvy pet parents – planning ahead can reap several health benefits.
“One of the really exciting things we can do is [harvest stem cells] when a pet comes in for its spay or neuter procedure,” says Dr. Weis. “That fat can then be banked for the rest of that pet’s life or whenever they need it. It’s a safe, quick procedure and an easy recovery.”
What Are Stem Cells?
Stem cells, Dr. Weis explains, are known as “undifferentiated” cells.
“People might think of them as ‘baby cells’, and they can grow up to be – in the widest sense – any sort of tissue in the body.”
Because of stem cells’ incredible versatility, these undifferentiated cells can be effectively used to help a body repair all sorts of damage and chronic conditions.
“The most common things we think of are orthopedic problems like osteoarthritis or degenerative joint disease, where the cartilage has worn down and there’s bone rubbing against bone,” Dr. Weis says. “Or maybe there’s some injury that’s happened to a tendon or a ligament.”
Once harvested from fat, stem cells are concentrated and incubated, and activated in a process that takes anywhere from 3 to 5 hours. Then they are reinjected back into the patient.
“Stem cells can be injected into the joints, which is very common,” Dr. Weis says. “We can do epidural injections, which is in that space right around the spinal cord. Or we can do intravenous injections. The medical condition we are addressing will dictate where those injections go.”
Platelet Rich Plasma (PRP) Treatment
Platelet Rich Plasma (PRP) treatments are yet another non-surgical, same-day procedure that can apply high doses of a body’s healing factors directly to the area where they are needed.
Like stem cells, PRP is achieved by taking something from the patient – in this case, the blood – and processing it during a same-day hospital visit, says Dr. Lugo.
“We want to get the part of the blood that has all of the clotting factors in it,” she continues. “They carry a lot of proteins and molecules, and when we take that part of the blood and inject it back into the patient, we can see improvement in healing and decreased inflammation.”
Many specialists use PRP for injuries that are slow to heal, says Dr. Lugo – such as ligament and tendon injuries, and others that can take weeks to months to heal. PRP is also used in many arthritis cases but is also ideal for corneal ulcers, wounds, and similar conditions.
“For corneal ulcers – which are ulcers of the eye – sometimes those can be extremely difficult to heal, depending on the cause,” Dr. Weis adds. By applying the body’s restorative powers, that process can be accelerated dramatically.
“The nice thing is that there is not an anesthetic component, unless we’re injecting directly into the joint,” Dr. Lugo says.
PRP, Dr. Weis notes, is often used as a standalone therapy, but is always combined with stem cell therapy for pets, as it helps to give stem cells a good head start.
Stem Cell Therapy and PRP in Action
A trio of Doylestown patients is currently proving the myriad benefits of PRP and stem cell therapy for pets.
Doylestown Veterinary Hospital recently treated a 13-year-old coonhound who had undergone surgery to remove a cancerous mass. The surgery had been performed in a tight area, Dr. Lugo explains, and there was some significant opening of the incision as a result.
“We gathered some PRP from her and have been putting it into the wound bed where the tumor was removed,” Dr. Lugo says. “It’s helping to shrink the size of that wound.”
The healing of tissue is particularly tricky when cancer is at play, Dr. Lugo explains, but improvement has been promising.
“We do think that PRP is helping significantly with the healing process,” she says. “She is doing a lot better clinically than she was a few weeks ago.”
Dr. Weis notes that the PRP that was pulled from this patient was subsequently frozen and stored so that small aliquots can be defrosted and used as needed.
The French Bulldog
One of Doylestown’s first stem cell treatment patients is a 12-year-old French bulldog who Dr. Weis says has led a “hard life.”
“She had some chronic knee issues, known as luxating patellas. That’s a condition where the kneecap slides back and forth and doesn’t sit nice and tightly in the groove. It wears down that protective cartilage and causes bone on bone rubbing and pain.”
The bulldog also had hip issues and chronic arthritis and had been hit by a car a few years ago.
Stem cell injections were used for the dog’s hips and knees, and also intravenously. Again, the results have been nothing short of astounding.
“It’s pretty remarkable watching how within just a few days after the procedure, she was stronger. She was standing upright more in the hind end, where she had been very weak before that. She progressed to more stability and more of a normal gait walking.”
In fact, the 20-pound bulldog – who lives with two 100-pound canine companions – has been busy running outdoors with her family and has also been navigating stairs (a feat she has not attempted in 2-3 years).
The Native American Indian Dog
Yet another success story involves a 4 ½-year-old Native American Indian Dog who has experienced debilitating problems since puppyhood.
“She had surgery on both elbows because of a condition called elbow dysplasia, because her forearms didn’t grow properly. It caused issues with a lot of pain and a lot of inflammation,” Dr Lugo says.
Elbow surgery helped for a short time, but the dog began to develop signs of arthritis. She also developed arthritis from hip dysplasia, a condition in which the long bone of the leg doesn’t sit in the joint of the hip properly, causing cartilage wear and inflammation.
Stem cells were given to her in both elbows and hips, and also intravenously. After a few days of soreness, there was steady improvement in the amount of weight the dog was able to put on her front leg, which had previously been the most challenging.
“Today, she has a completely normal gait,” Dr. Lugo says. “She is also back out running and playing, whereas previously she would tap out and go lie on the couch because she was just too sore to get up. She’s also going on much longer hikes with mom now that she’s about a month and a half out from the procedure.”
No longer on a high dosage of pain medication, the dog has seen a huge improvement in her quality of life.
Every Patient is Different
While Dr. Weis stresses that the Doylestown team has no idea of knowing how long the effects of this central therapy will last for each individual pet, the good news is that stem cells can be banked for future use.
“What we like to do is when we harvest the fat, we bank it in case a patient needs to come back in a year or two years, or even further down the road for a different condition. That way, all we need to do is reactivate those cells and we can do injections right away, without another surgical procedure.”
While all dogs are different, Dr. Weis and Dr. Lugo think most medical conditions – active cancer, notwithstanding – can be prime candidates for stem cell treatments for pets.
Some experts believe stem cell treatments for pets may be able to help with spinal conditions, perhaps slowing the effects of degenerative spinal cord disease and allowing dogs to maintain function for longer. Others think that sufferers of the neurologic condition intervertebral disc disease may benefit, as the treatment could potentially reduce inflammation and aid healing of the spinal cord.
“There’s a lot of energy and excitement around it,” says Dr. Weis. Many pet parents have scheduled consultations to learn more about the procedure and to learn how they can help their dogs feel better and live better lives.
“We also work closely with Ardent Animal Health and have access to some of their experts who have been doing this for years and years,” Dr. Weis says. “We can even schedule free client consultations with one of their doctors if there is an unusual condition or something that a client has intense questions about. Even though we’re the only hospital in the area doing this kind of treatment, this is certainly not unexplored technology.”
Perhaps the biggest plus is that stem cell therapy for pets does not come with side effects, says Dr. Weis.
Whereas non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs are still mainstays for the treatment of arthritis and joint disease, animals who have been prescribed these medications for an extended time must be monitored to ensure proper organ functioning. Side effects for traditional treatments can be mild or severe – or worse – making an alternative option so much more appealing and allowing medications to be reduced and, in some cases, eliminated.
“This is brand new for a lot of people,” Dr. Weis says.
Dr. Lugo agrees. “People do seem to be excited by the prospect and I think it’s really positive,” she says. “It’s nice to have another option for people to help their pets.”