Laser therapy helping dogs with disc disease

The use of lasers in veterinary medicine is not new, but University of Florida veterinarians are now using the procedure postoperatively with great success in dogs with paralysis caused by intervertebral disc disease.
“Dogs that receive low-level laser treatment after initial surgery are walking a full week earlier than patients that do not receive the treatment,” said Dr. Tom Schubert, a professor of small animal neurology at UF’s College of Veterinary Medicine. “This means less hospital time for the patients, and less stress for patients and their owners.”
Clinicians at UF’s Small Animal Hospital began using the procedure routinely after results from a year-long study showed the laser’s effectiveness in patients with intervertebral disc disease, which is the most common cause of endogenous spinal cord injury. Schubert and Dr. Bill Draper, a small animal neurology resident, presented their study results in June at the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine’s annual meeting in Denver.
The study is the first ever to compare dogs with intervertebral disc disease treated postoperatively with lasers to dogs not treated with lasers, Schubert said. He called the results “revolutionary.”
Thirty-four dogs were included in the study, with 17 in the treatment group and 17 in the control group. The overwhelming majority of the dogs — 75 percent — were dachshunds, a breed genetically prone to intervertebral disc disease.
All dogs included in the study came to the UF Small Animal Hospital unable to walk, and some had lost the ability to experience the sensation of deep pain in their back legs. In addition, all of the dogs had their diagnoses confirmed through either MRI or CT scanning, and all underwent decompressive surgery after their diagnoses, said Schubert.
After receiving training and becoming certified in the laser’s use, Schubert convinced the laser manufacturer, Thor Photomedicine Ltd., to loan the equipment to the UF Veterinary Hospitals for the study’s duration.
“The company wanted proof that the equipment works, so they were willing to loan it to us,” Schubert said, adding that after the study was completed, UF found funds to purchase the equipment.
“We are currently seeing two to three patients a week with intervertebral disc disease and we are routinely treating all of them with the laser,” Schubert said.
The idea of studying the laser’s effectiveness on patients with this disease came to Schubert after he heard a former colleague give a presentation on the effectiveness of laser treatment on animals receiving physical therapy for various conditions.
“I started wondering if we could use this technique in spinal injury cases,” Schubert said. “In addition, I am always looking for projects for my residents, so Dr. Draper and I did some research and reviewed the literature on the use of lasers to help spinal cord injury. Then Dr. Draper put together a protocol. Now we can see that indeed, the laser therapy does help our patients.”
The laser used in the study was a Class 3b, of the near infrared range.
“In humans, this wavelength has been shown to speed healing of conditions such as muscle pain and superficial wounds,” Shubert said. “In animals, it has been shown to prevent nervous tissue scarring, to promote nerve sprouting and to help heal bruised spinal cords in rats.”
Schubert said light therapy is known to affect certain elements within the body, resulting in beneficial effects similar to how light affects chlorophyll in plants.
“After spinal cord injury, broken down cells affect other cells, so you want to restore normal metabolism as soon as possible,” Schubert said. “One function of laser therapy is that it kind of kick-starts the metabolic chain at the mitochondrial level and thereby restarts the production of the energy the cell uses to maintain all of its mechanisms.”
He said the results of the UF study were “amazing” for several reasons.
“Patients walk sooner, they avoid additional medical complications, their owners save money and the animals are less stressed due to less hospitalization time,” Schubert said. “The results were so profound that we’re doing this procedure now on all dogs that come to us with this condition.”

Laser Therapy for Dogs

woman with dalmatianCold laser therapy is a noninvasive procedure that uses light to stimulate cell regeneration and increase blood circulation. Cold laser therapy treats the surface of the skin, while hot laser treatments affect deeper tissues.
Hot laser treatments come with greater risk of cutting and/or burning caused by the increased intensity of laser beams.
Often called low-level laser therapy, cold laser therapy or Class IV laser therapy, by any name, is still a relatively new concept that is being used more recently to treat dogs with arthritis, tendon or soft tissue injuries and to promote wound healing.
Is laser therapy a medical procedure? Marc Newkirk, DVM at Newkirk Family Veterinarians in Egg Harbor Township, N.J., explains that it depends on the class of laser. “There are medical devices that are not available to anyone except a doctor, such as the Class IV Erchonia, which is what I use.”
“I’ve been doing laser therapy for 15 years,” says Dr. Newkirk, “The equipment is expensive, so you have to decide you are going to work with this therapy for the long haul.”
Laser therapy can treat acute and chronic injuries, sprains and strains, arthritis, swelling due to back disc problems, and muscular-skeletal abnormalities. It also helps to regenerate nerve tissue after surgery.
Lasers are nothing more than a beam of light that travels at a certain frequency that allows the laser to generate heat and penetrate tissue. Some Class IV or cold lasers are programmable to a range of frequencies in order to treat many different types of problems in dogs.
Erin Troy, DVM, CCRP and certified canine rehab practitioner at Muller Veterinary Hospital/The Canine Rehabilitation Center in Walnut Creek, Calif., says, “We’ve been using laser therapy for seven or eight years now in healing, pain control and trigger point therapy.”
Dr. Troy explains that this therapeutic procedure was used 40 years ago on humans before it was ever tried on dogs. That’s interesting because as a number of consumer products are still tested on animals first before they are approved or prescribed for individuals.
Dogs find laser therapy relaxing and tend to enjoy the treatment.
“In our hospital, we use a room large enough for the dog to wander around, with a lot of a daylight,” that streams in through the windows, says Dr. Troy. “We let the family hold the dog. There is a large mat for the dog to lie on or stand on, but most dogs will lie down when they receive treatment. Our dogs look forward to it because they feel better after their course of therapy.”
Dr. Newkirk describes a typical laser therapy session as lasting between three to 20 minutes.
“Does the dog relax?,” he says. “You get a release of endorphins, especially with the Erchonia laser. There are two beams and one of them gets shined on the brain and that creates a sense of well-being. Dogs like it, particularly at the point where they make that association between something that happened to them and something that feels good.”
In a typical treatment session, the laser wand is applied to the area to be treated. “Depending on the area and the energy you are delivering, it can take up to 10 to 20 minutes,” says Dr. Troy.
And, the good news about laser therapy for dogs is there’s no need to shave or clip the area to be treated and the dog doesn’t need to be sedated during the process. That means that treatment can be applied multiple times a day or a number of times per week.
Before treatment begins, the dog will be given a full physical along with X-rays if needed. Dr. Newkirk says, “You need a diagnosis. It could be a tumor or it could be a knee or hip problem.”
If you have a dog with arthritis, according to Doctors Newkirk and Troy, you can expect to start laser treatment with two to three sessions per week, then decrease sessions to once a week, then once every two weeks.
“We base how many therapy sessions on the response of the animal,” Dr. Newkirk says. “If the arthritis is more advanced, then more sessions would be needed.”
Price points for laser therapy range from $25.00 to $45.00 per session at the Muller Veterinary Hospital in Walnut, California.
At Newkirk Family Veterinary, in Egg Harbor, N.J., sessions are packaged as a bundle on the first day the dog is evaluated. Then the dog comes in twice a week and half the time a technician will perform the treatment.  Costs run around $80 a week for two visits.
After laser therapy, dog owners might see their dog go upstairs more often, play with a ball he’s not picked up in months or go back to getting on the couch for his nightly snuggle with family members. And, when dogs have better mobility, medications can often be reduced.
Laser therapy won’t cause your dog any unwanted side effects. The laser used for this type of treatment will not burn your dog’s skin.
Not all veterinary practices have the facilities to offer laser treatment for your dog, as the laser equipment can be exceptionally pricy. Laser therapy treatment is becoming more popular. With increased popularity, the equipment will become more affordable and then more widely available.
“I would like to see this type of technology in every practice, just like prescription and injectable drugs. This should be one more way to manage our patients in the future,” says Dr. Troy. “It’s really not alternative therapy, but more of an integrative approach.”
Laser therapy improves the quality of a dog’s life as well as the life of its owner, because if your dog is happy, you are happy.