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Pets 101

High Tech Healing – Modern science offers new hope for ailing animals

By Christa Grunzinger

Maggie Mae was a dog running out of time. The 10-year-old Australian Shepherd suffered from hip and elbow dysplasia—an abnormality in maturation of cells within a tissue—and had undergone various treatments for the condition, which included taking supplements like Glyco-Flex, as well as receiving water therapy and acupuncture. Maggie Mae couldn’t move well, climb stairs, run, or even stand for long periods. Her guardian, Terry Hayes, was advised by Maggie’s vet to put Maggie to sleep on account of the tremendous pain she was in. Maggie Mae was almost out of options when her guardian discovered an exceptionally promising alternative: adult stem cell treatments.

Two months after undergoing the procedure, Maggie was able to jump on the couch, something she was never able to do before. “You can tell she’s happier and in less pain,” says Hayes.

With new technology, thousands of dogs, cats, and horses are battling triumphantly against degenerative disorders like arthritis, hip dysplasia, and degenerative disc disease. Performed by leading orthopedic surgeons, adult stem cell treatments have become more popular than ever before, and because they utilize only the cells from an adult animal, aren’t as controversial as their embryonic counterparts. Although most treatments are still being researched since they emerged in 2004, they’re already producing extraordinary results for animals with conditions such as dysplasia, contributing to the animal’s quality of life while still allowing for natural functioning of the body.

Although it may sound complicated, stem cell treatments are quite simple to perform. The process involves extracting adult cells from the animal’s own belly fat and then injecting them back into the problem areas, where they aid in rehabilitation. Treatments involve two separate procedures. The fat cells are first sent to stem cell laboratories, where they are extracted from tissues. The stem cells are then returned to veterinary hospitals for treatment of the patient. The procedures are quick, painless, and without great risk.

Affiliated Veterinary Specialists (AVS), a specialty hospital in central Florida, houses state-of-the-art equipment and board-certified specialists. So far, the hospital has conducted eight successful adult stem cell procedures on horses and dogs. “Typically, we see improvements within two to four weeks after procedures,” says Dr. Jaceck de Haan, AVS surgeon and certified stem cell professional. “Compared to more aggressive treatment alternatives for dysplasia, the recovery period is significantly less than that of a total hip replacement, which can take over four months for recovery.”

Stem cell treatments are also cost effective. Generally they range from $2,500 to $4,000 per procedure, versus $5,000 or more for a complete hip replacement. Unfortunately, like most donor procedures, stem cell treatments may not entirely solve the problem for every animal, but neither do total bone replacements.

Dr. Derek Fox, a diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Surgeons and an orthopedic surgeon at the University of Missouri’s veterinary hospital in Columbia, believes that if traditional approaches to regenerative medicine are unsuccessful, stem cell treatments can be extremely practical and produce terrific results for pets. “I think there’s a lack of adequate research on stem cell treatments, which is why it’s still so infrequently utilized in human medicine,” he says. “I do have high hopes that it will continue to show promising results toward veterinary practices. I don’t believe there’s any greater risk of complication with stem cells than there is for any other surgical procedure used to address [dysplasia].”

The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) likewise believes that stem cell therapy will bring great advancement to degenerating animals. Most rescues and shelters haven’t implemented stem cell treatments because the treatments aren’t yet being performed outside traditional veterinary practices. Perhaps in time treatments will become more prevalent in the lives of homeless pets.

Stem cell treatments aren’t the only new advancement in modern veterinary practice; animals are also finding relief from their ailments through artificial joint replacements. Although total hip replacements are commonly performed, total elbow replacements are quite new to the veterinary field. Recently, researchers have accomplished this procedure by reforming elbows with artificial replacements of the joint. Metal is inserted within the joint of the elbow and structured to support the bones as a natural joint would. Regrettably, this type of procedure doesn’t work as well on larger animals, who may benefit from the structure for only a limited number of years before the metal begins to weaken or deteriorate from weighted pressure. Nonetheless, customizing the joint for smaller animals allows for a quality of movement that animals would not benefit from otherwise.

Dr. Adam Aulbach, a clinical pathologist and former resident of Michigan State’s veterinary college, has high hopes for another innovative procedure, small intestine submucosa (SIS). SIS is very similar to stem cell treatment in that it employs a biomaterial to naturally reconstruct tissues. A portion of the small intestine is taken from the animal’s body and used to rejuvenate a degenerating or injured tissue. In doing so, the intestinal cells reprogram themselves to match the new tissue surface, and the cells reform just as they would in a natural state, before they became debilitated. “The procedure hasn’t reached vet offices just yet,” says Aulbach. “But it has accomplished rehabilitation of joint cartilages, tendons, and other tissues, such as a bladder reconstruction. I know it is being done at the University of Michigan and Pittsburgh.”

From modern stem cell treatments to artificial bone reconstructions, today’s cutting-edge medical science is having tremendous success. As researchers advance science with extraordinary medical practices, pets continue to benefit and, in turn, live longer, healthier lives.

As for Maggie Mae, guardian Hayes attributes the stem cell treatment, in addition to the other therapies Maggie underwent, to her progress. Although she notes that Maggie’s improvement window is still wide open, Hayes is thankful for the outcome.

“I’m hopeful Maggie’s story is a real influence for stem cell treatments to become more common,” she says. “I think it’s been more than a blessing that it was available to us at all.”

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