What is Stem Cell Therapy?

Stem cell therapy is a regenerative medicine used to treat osteoarthritis, as well as other injuries, to bones, joints, tendons and spinal cords. The goal of stem cell therapy in dogs is to regenerate tissue in the part of a body that has been damaged from a disease, or is losing function. It is a relatively common procedure and its use is actually increasing. When stem cell therapy is used depends on the condition it is treating, but it is usually when the condition has already progressed substantially. As stem cell therapy is normally a series of injections, it will either be administered by a local vet or a specialist. 

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Stem Cell Therapy Procedure in Dogs

An initial visit or two to the vet will be needed to diagnose the problem and decide on the course of action. There are two parts to stem cell therapy. Firstly, harvesting will need to take place; this will go as follows:

  • The dog will be put under a general anaesthetic intravenously.
  • Stem cells are usually taken from bone marrow or fatty tissue, so a few puncture wounds will be made in the desired location (fat is often taken from the dog’s shoulder).
  • A special needle attached to a syringe is inserted through the puncture wounds to collect the stem cells. 
  • This is repeated until enough is collected. 
  • The puncture site is pressure dressed or bandaged. 
  • This usually takes between half an hour and an hour.
  • The extraction is then sent to a laboratory, where it is used to produce a substance called stromal vascular fraction.
  • The then ready stem cells could be back at the vets in just 48 hours.
  • The dog will again be anaesthetised.
  • The stem cells will be injected directly into the affected joints/area.
  • The number of injections will depend on the individual case, but could take place over many months. 

Efficacy of Stem Cell Therapy in Dogs

Over 80% of dog owners report improvements after stem cell therapy, making it an effective treatment option. Due to the nature of joint degeneration and the fact that many dogs suffer with joint conditions because of aging, dogs’ joints may degenerate further later in life, and in places where stem cell therapy was not administered.

There are alternatives to stem cell therapy. Traditionally vets have been treating degenerative joint diseases with supplements and anti-inflammatory medication and/or surgery. However, both supplements and anti-inflammatory drugs have had very limited success, hence the increase in popularity of stem cell therapy. Surgery can be used in a number of ways, such as replacing severely injured body parts, such as hips. However, the surgical options are serious alternatives and come with serious risks of complications and even run the risk of failure. Stem cell therapy is much less invasive, whilst rendering more successful results than the alternatives.

Stem Cell Therapy Recovery in Dogs

Due to the minimally invasive nature of stem cell therapy, dogs recover promptly from treatment. There is a possibility they may need to stay in overnight at the veterinary hospital. But, once home they should take it easy for the first few days. However, some owners start to see improvements in just 10 days. For others, visible improvements may take up to 30 days. The dog could be running around, back to full health, in just a month or two. But, full recovery will depend on the individual case; it could take many months. 

Further check-ups or follow-up appointments with the vet will be necessary; these will likely take place every few weeks, increasing to months as the dog’s condition improves. Little ongoing maintenance is required. But, supplements and anti-inflammatory drugs may also be used in conjunction, to maintain and improve the condition.

Cost of Stem Cell Therapy in Dogs

The average cost of stem cell therapy for dogs’ costs between $2,000 and $3,000 dollars. The fluctuation is due to a number of factors. The more experienced the vet, the more expensive the whole treatment will be. But also, the condition of the dog and the number of injections needed will also influence the price. Each visit to the vet may cost between $75 and $150. X-rays too, will cost around $75. The procedure itself will cost upwards of $1,750. You may also pay an additional $150 to store the remaining stem cells for future use. 

The cost of supplements and anti-inflammatory drugs are admittedly much lower. They could all cost between $20-$60 a week. But, they are significantly less effective and you may then be required to pay for surgery later on. 

Plus, the surgical alternatives to stem cell therapy are costly. It depends considerably on the particular operation, but hip replacements, for example, can cost around $4,000 to $5,000. So, the surgical alternatives are often just as expensive, but also more invasive and come with a much higher risk of complications.

Dog Stem Cell Therapy Considerations

As stem cell therapy is minimally invasive, there are relatively few risks associated with the treatment. There is one major risk associated however, and that is cancer. There is not enough conclusive evidence to say for sure, that stem cell therapy can cause cancer, but it has been put forward by some people. 

Also, there are always some risks with general anaesthetics, yet these risks are relatively low. The chances of joints degenerating further is possible, as a result of the natural aging process, but the effectiveness and relief stem cell therapy brings outweigh these minimal risks.

Stem Cell Therapy Prevention in Dogs

As degenerative joint disease is a natural part of the aging process, preventing it is challenging, and these preventative measures can only be effective to a certain extent. Building and maintaining muscles, tendons and joints can be the most effective measure an owner can take. This entails regular exercise for the dog. The frequency, durations and intensity should be varied depending on the dog, but exercise will ensure the muscles and limbs are as healthy as possible for as long as possible. This measure also comes with the benefit of keeping owners fit and healthy. On top of regular exercise, massaging the dog, undertaking at-home strengthening exercises and water therapy may also help to prevent arthritis in the long term. 

The next step for owners to take is to alter their dog’s diet. Carbohydrates should be discouraged as they promote inflammation. Fresh foods that are unprocessed, are rich in unadulterated enzymes and can help to reduce inflammation. A healthy, balanced diet is key to the long-term health of the dogs muscles and joints.

Certain supplements can also be added to the dog’s diet, to encourage muscle and joint retention and prevent degeneration. These are known as joint supportive agents, and common, effective agents are eggshell membrane, glucosamine sulfate with MSM, and cetyl myristoleate.

Both the exercise measures outlined above and the diet alterations may not prevent degeneration entirely, but they may well prevent it occurring until dogs are much older.