Q: I read an article about vets treating a sick cat with stem cell therapy. Have we really come that far with medicine for pets? How do I find out what options are available if my pet gets sick?


A: Medical breakthroughs are not restricted to the human end of the leash. Treatment options for our pets range from acupuncture to stem cell therapy, leading the American Pet Products Manufacturing Association to estimate that pet owners will spend more than $14 billion on veterinary care this year. So it’s no surprise that veterinarians are buzzing about the latest breakthroughs. Here are a few veterinary advances that may be coming to a clinic near you.  


Stem cell therapy

Primarily used for racehorses, the procedure involves removing cells from an animal, harvesting stem cells and then injecting them at the injury site. “I’ve heard wonderful things about it helping with arthritis,” says Dr. Arhonda Johnson, owner of The Ark Animal Hospital in Atlanta. “I just had a dog with renal failure that it helped. Unfortunately the results were short-lived.”


Dr. Alan Cross, a board-certified surgeon who specializes in orthopedics at Georgia Veterinary Specialists (GVS) in Atlanta, also says stem cell therapy has shown promise in treating dogs with arthritis. “Dogs seem to improve,” he says. “We have anecdotal evidence but clinical evidence lags a lot in vet medicine.”


Because the procedure is still relatively new, expect a pretty hefty price tag at clinics that offer stem cell therapy. Cross says the procedure costs about $2,500 at GVS.


Elbow replacement

With age comes wear and tear. Cross says that half of his cases involve pets with knee problems. The rest result from fractures, ligament injuries and trauma. While tibial plateau leveling osteotomy or TPLO is a relatively common surgery for pets with anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tears, Cross says total elbow replacement is now becoming more widely available. “Elbows are more challenging,” Cross says. “Elbow disease is very common and we don’t have much in terms of treatment options because it’s a high-motion joint.”


If your pet has trouble with elbow issues, consider discussing options with your vet.


Cold laser therapy

Cold laser therapy gives veterinarians a non-invasive tool to stimulate a pet’s muscle tissue or achy joints, providing pain relief for conditions such as arthritis. “It’s like a warm compress,” says Dr. Jennifer Coates, who works with many older dogs at Home to Heaven, an in-home pet hospice and euthanasia service in Fort Collins, Colo. “It really stimulates the body’s ability to do what the body should be doing, and it’s naturally very safe.”


Johnson also has found success with cold laser therapy. “We asked 20 clients with dogs that had hip issues to try it for free; if there was an improvement they could come back,” she says. “Nineteen clients returned. You really can’t beat that.”


Of course, laser therapy requires more than a one-time session. Coates says most arthritis patients start with laser treatment a few times a week, gradually reducing sessions over time. “As the condition changes, [treatment] may need to change as well,” she says. “It’s a balancing act.”


Cancer treatment

When Dr. Terrance Hamilton began his residency 23 years ago, veterinary oncology was still in its infancy. “The changes I’ve seen are amazing and exciting to look back on,” says the medical oncologist, who practices at GVS.


One notable change to cancer treatment involves the use of an anti-nausea drug called Cerenia, Hamilton says. Typically canine cancer treatment involves a cocktail of medications that would cause 95 percent of patients to vomit on their first day of treatment. But Cerenia has significantly reduced tummy trouble for dogs, resulting in only 5 percent of patients vomiting on the day of treatment. 


Hamilton also is excited about a new tool in the fight against malignant melanoma. Once the original tumor is removed or radiated, a melanoma vaccine attacks and stops the cancer cells from spreading to other areas.


“It’s a game changer,” Hamilton says. “I used to dread this type [of cancer]; now I get excited.”


Advances in veterinary medicine also come at a price. Coates is a big advocate of pet insurance to help reduce costs for treatment. Plans vary based on the amount of coverage you select, and monthly payments typically start at $10 for a plan with companies such as VPI Insurance, Trupanion or Kroger, which joined the mix in 2006.


“If you can find a policy that covers a number of things for $10 or $20 a month, then when you are faced with illness that runs hundreds if not thousands, it’s worth its weight in gold,” Coates says. “Pet insurance saves pet’s lives.”


Johnson notes another relatively inexpensive way to keep your pets happy and healthy. “The best way to keep pets out of the veterinary clinic is proper nutrition and exercise, just like with people,” she says. “Feed them good, nutritious food and walk them regularly.”


— Morieka Johnson


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What are some of the latest medical advances in veterinary medicine?
I read an article about vets treating a sick cat with stem cell therapy. Have we really come that far with medicine for pets? How do I find out what options are