Retiree Paul Jaynes was heartbroken when his 9-year-old Labrador, Cookie, suddenly stopped walking last year. The once-athletic dog struggled to stand and, if she moved at all, collapsed after a few steps.
He carried his 90-pound companion to his truck, drove her to the vet and braced himself for the bad news. Surely she couldn't live like this.
Instead, his veterinarian told him about a newly available procedure involving stem cells. In a single day, the vet said, they could remove the cells from Cookie's fatty tissues, process them and re-inject them into her joints. She could go home immediately.
"It was very dramatic," Jaynes says. "The day after surgery, she was standing. She was hesitant, but she was standing and walking a little. I thought: 'Are you kidding me?' Within a week, she was almost back to her old self."
That was last September, and six months later Cookie is still going strong, Jaynes says. While he has no doubts about the treatment, some veterinarians worry that marketing of stem-cell therapy for animals has gotten ahead of the scientific research needed to validate its use.
The results, while sometimes promising, are not universal.
"Most of what you hear is anecdotal — 'Oh, I tried this, and it helped my dog,'" says Dr. Jeffrey Peck, a veterinary surgeon at Affiliated Veterinary Specialists, based in Maitland, Fla. "This has grown in its marketing exponentially greater than it has grown in evidence."
Much of his practice is in orthopedics — typically, dogs with hip dysplasia or arthritis. He tried using stem-cell therapy with his patients in 2008 but dropped it after a dozen cases in which he saw no improvement.
"I don't refuse to do it if a client really wants to try, but I give them my disclaimer," he says. "I tell them: 'I don't think I'm going to hurt anything. But I doubt I'm going to help anything either.'"
At $1,400 to $3,000 for the procedure, most pet owners opt out, he says.
But Peck acknowledges that some of his colleagues are decidedly more optimistic about the therapy, and some have treated their own pets with stem cells with varying degrees of success.
Dr. Janis Fullenwider, veterinarian and owner of an area animal hospital, began offering the treatment there about a year ago, though she has only treated five dogs so far.
"I think it will turn out to be extremely promising — not just for osteoarthritis but for all kinds of things," she says. "I'm actually banking some stem cells from my own dogs now."
Her enthusiasm comes despite an early — and profound — disappointment. Four years ago, one of her dogs was a subject in a pilot study to test stem-cell therapy for cardiomyopathy in Dobermans, half of whom eventually develop the fatal heart-muscle disease. Only 15 Dobermans were enrolled, and Fullenwider's dog died the day after the treatment.
Though the dog might have died that day regardless, ultimately researchers said the stem cells showed no sign of helping.
But those results only underscore the need for more studies, Fullenwider says, and they don't dissuade her from using the therapy for osteoarthritis. Of the dogs treated at her practice, she says, all showed progress.
"I do think, because it's such an (emerging) therapy, a lot of people don't yet understand it," she adds. "And it's still expensive right now."
But the price is starting to drop, and the research is rapidly growing. The University of Florida, for instance, is currently enrolling subjects for an ongoing study of stem-cell therapy in dogs with arthritic elbows (the middle joint of the front legs).
Fourteen have already completed the six-month trial, during which the owners, other veterinarians and technicians are kept in the dark about which dogs are getting the therapy and which are getting a placebo. The placebo dogs get the treatment at the end.
"I think for this application — for arthritis — it's very useful, says Dr. Anna Dunlap, a veterinarian and orthopedic fellow working on the study. "The owners tend to guess correctly. They'll come in at three months and say, 'I think my dog is in the stem-cell group because he's really improving' — and they're usually right."
Her research uses stem cells from umbilical cords harvested during canine cesarean-section births. But the more common practice currently is to surgically remove them from fatty tissue — either behind the dog's neck or on its abdomen — process the cells, and then inject them into the troublesome site. Though adverse effects are rare, the procedure does bring a risk of joint infection.
The therapy, proponents say, reduces inflammation, speeds healing and may even help to regenerate tissue — the most controversial claim.
And some vets are using stem cells to treat horses, dogs and, less often, cats for a wide variety of ailments.
"We use the therapy for degenerative joint disease, but we also use it for what's called compassionate-use cases, which simply means that they don't have enough research yet to claim that stem-cell therapy works for it," says Erica Kent, director of operations for Newman Veterinary Centers in Central Florida, one of the first to offer the therapy. "That includes kidney disease, irritable-bowel disease, stomatitis — which is a gum disease in cats ... I actually treated my own cat for irritable-bowel disease."
She also treated her basset-hound mix for arthritis. In both cases, she says, she witnessed dramatic progress.
But for Carol Hall's 15-year-old Shiba Inu mix, Ginger, the response was less impressive.
"I really didn't see an improvement," says Hall, an area resident. "I think sometimes she had a little more pep, but I think her arthritis was just too advanced."
Ginger underwent knee-replacement surgery in 2012, but Hall sought the stem-cell therapy last year in hopes of easing the dog's overall pain and increasing her mobility. And while Hall can't detect much difference, she doesn't regret the $1,500 decision.
"I did research it — because I would never let her go into surgery at age 14 if I didn't think it would help," she says. "And I'm sure it helped in other ways that I can't see. After all, her life expectancy is 9 years, and she's still going at 15."
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