Pet owners are passionate about finding ways to help relieve pain in their older, arthritic dogs or lessen the discomfort of a pet with cancer. Veterinarians are now using a high tech solution that just might surprise you.
Whether used to blow up the Death Star or vaporize Romulans, most people view lasers as something destructive. Even in surgery, lasers can be used like scalpels to remove unwanted tissue or seal blood vessels with their intense heat. So, it may come as a surprise to learn that lasers are now being used to help heal wounds or provide pain relief for arthritic pets.
Photobiomodulation is the fancy word that describes how a laser is used to stimulate cells in an animal’s body. Unlike a surgical laser that uses a high energy output, lasers used to heal and relieve pain use a lower wattage. Although the actual mechanism is not known, advocates of “cold laser” theorize that the laser light stimulates the cells to increase production of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the molecule that helps provide energy for cellular function. The added energy seems to encourage the healing process.
Even though using lasers in this way is relatively new, the first notation of its potential was seen more than 40 years ago. A Hungarian scientist testing laser effects on skin cancers saw that hair grew back more rapidly on the backs of shaved mice when a laser was applied. Fast forward four decades and low level lasers have been used for everything from combating hair loss to tattoo removal. Even the FDA has approved the use of therapy lasers, although it is still considered experimental. And, most insurance companies won’t cover any kind of laser therapy.
By applying a low level laser light to areas such as painful hips, veterinarians are reporting dramatic improvements and better quality of life for their patients. Some pets have even fallen asleep during their treatments. Veterinarians using lasers say that the feeling is probably similar to one you would get from a professional massage.
Dr. Melanie Marsden, a strong advocate of laser therapy, reports that her hospital in the Pikes Peak area routinely uses their laser for everything from spay incision sites to anal gland infections! Her practice uses lasers on rabbits, exotic lizards and even a giraffe at the local zoo.
Beyond alleviating pain, the laser therapy sessions offer hope to owners who previously might have considered euthanasia in order to relieve their pet’s distress.
The devices appear to have potential for pet injuries as well. At Companion Therapy Laser, a laser treatment was used on a case involving a two year old pit bull who suffered burns over 60 percent of his body. By using the laser on the burns, the veterinary hospital saw a quicker recovery and much less discomfort from the two year old pup. Skin conditions, such as lick granulomas and even contaminated wounds like those received from car accidents are being healed in much less time than conventional treatment methods.
Other veterinarians are using the low level lasers for everything from severe gingivitis and ear infections to disc disease.
But, the treatment and successes aren’t without critics. Websites such as Quackwatch and Skeptvet aren’t convinced that the lasers are all that beneficial. They point to numerous studies and conclude that there is no evidence low energy laser light affects an animal’s health or any disease process. Thankfully, they also conclude that there is little evidence of harm from these treatments. So we have believers and skeptics — pretty normal with any new treatment or technology.
If clients have their way, more veterinarians will invest in these lasers. Dr. Marsden reports that more than 80 percent of her clients opt for this type of treatment and her chronic arthritic patients often respond better than with conventional medications. And, in her mind, these pets are better because there is no placebo effect with animals. And for me, it works on my knees.
It’s obvious that more research is needed to both understand if lasers are indeed beneficial in helping our pets and, if they do help, how do they work. Like many “alternative” treatments, you should discuss this option with your veterinarian to see if it is right for you and your pet.
R. Craig Brakeman, DVM