For decades, researchers have touted stem cells as a potential treatment for a number of diseases. Doctors already use stem cells to treat people with leukemia, lymphoma, and other blood disorders as well as for some solid cancer tumors.
Pets can also take advantage of stem cell treatments. "Used for appropriate conditions, I think this therapy will significantly help a large number of animals. In the right instances, the results have already been astounding," says Sean Owens, DVM, DACVP. He's an associate professor at UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine and medical director for the school's Regenerative Medicine Laboratory.
The most common and successful veterinary use of stem cells treats osteoarthritis in dogs, as well as injuries to bones, joints, tendons, ligaments, and the spinal cord. Early research also shows that stem cells might successfully treat dry eye in dogs and stomatitis -- a severe, painful oral disease -- in cats. In the future, pets and people could benefit from stem cell therapy for chronic diseases such as diabetes and autoimmune diseases such as lupus, Owens says.
What Is Stem Cell Therapy?
A stem cell is a blank slate that can become any type of cell, with the potential to regenerate tissue in a part of the body where disease has damaged it and caused it to lose function.
Pet stem cell therapy uses stem cells from the bone marrow, umbilical cord blood, or fat of either your pet or another animal of the same species. A veterinarian injects the stem cells into the diseased area, such as a knee joint damaged by osteoarthritis. The cells move to the inflamed or damaged tissue, suppress the inflammation, relieve pain, and cause new tissue to grow. This new tissue is more like the original tissue than the scar tissue that would typically grow in an untreated inflamed area, Owens explains.
Stem cell therapy is not for every pet or every condition. Beware of veterinarians who claim it's a cure-all. It's not for every budget, either. A course of two to three injections can run $2,000 or more. If you have the resources and your pet still has several good years ahead of him, stem cell therapy might be a good option. Find a veterinarian who has experience with the therapy and ask lots of questions, including not only if your dog or cat would be a good candidate but why.
Q: "My dog, a 9-year-old blue heeler mix, has cataracts. I feel for him, but is surgery necessary and worth it?"-- Katie Smith, 34, instructional technology specialist, Athens, GA.
A: "A veterinary ophthalmologist should examine your dog to see if surgery makes sense. Sometimes the lens looks cloudy because of aging. Also, many breeds get cataracts due to inherited retinal degeneration. Cataract surgery wouldn't work for them. Without the surgery, most dogs adapt well to vision loss and continue to have a good quality of life, but for appropriate candidates, cataract surgery can help restore vision." -- Nancy Bromberg, VMD, DACVO Veterinary ophthalmologist, VCA Southpaws Veterinary Specialists & Emergency Center, Fairfax, VA
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