My last few articles have focused on some commonly used tools I use to diagnose problems in pets. I have focused on tools that veterinarians have used for many years, but are still incredibly valuable in my job in spite of being relatively inexpensive to use. My stethoscope, ophthalmoscope and even my hands are used on a daily basis to help me determine what ails my patients.
In spite of my reliance on these “old school” tools, I actually do use more modern equipment also. So before people start thinking my “old school” ways might also include leeches and snake oil, I thought I would discuss my newest piece of equipment for this final tool of the trade article.
Several months ago, I purchased a therapeutic laser unit. I had researched the uses and effectiveness of laser therapy for several years. I will admit when I first heard about laser therapy I thought it sounded pretty crazy, but now the scientific studies are too compelling and numerous to deny. After talking to several veterinarians who had seen first-hand the benefits of laser therapy on their patients, I decided I really needed to offer it to patients as well.
Laser therapy has been used in Europe since the 1970s. In 2002, laser therapy was cleared by the United States Food and Drug Administration, and in that time its use on people as well as pets has increased dramatically. When this completely safe, painless energy is applied to any areas of pain or inflammation, it increases the metabolic activity of each cell. That speeds up the healing process and reduces pain. Laser therapy has been shown to increase circulation to diseased areas which helps to decrease swelling and speed up healing. Laser therapy has also been shown to decrease irreversible scar tissue formation. Finally, laser therapy has the beneficial effects on nerves of speeding up the healing of damaged nerves as well as blocking the pain transmitted to nerve cells to reduce the pain experienced by patients.
The laser treatments are very well tolerated by patients. There is no discomfort during the treatments. Pets may feel a little warmth and often once they feel that sensation it is very common to feel them relax and even act like they are enjoying the feeling. The length of the treatment depends on the severity of the condition and the size of the pet. The maximum length of treatment in the largest dog with severe inflammation is four to five minutes.
The frequency and number of laser treatments recommended depend on the condition and whether it is an acute or chronic problem. Acute conditions may require just one treatment or possibly two to three over about a week. In the few months since I have had my laser unit, we routinely have used it on acute conditions such as incisions immediately after surgery, back pain and infections caused by animal bites. I even used the laser on my own arm when a frightened cat decided to hang onto it with its teeth.
Chronic conditions usually require six treatments over the first three weeks and then a maintenance treatment every three to six weeks to keep the pet feeling comfortable. Chronic conditions I have been treating with laser include arthritis, chronic ear inflammation, skin lesions made chronic from pets licking and chewing at them (lick granulomas), and anterior cruciate ligament tears. These chronic conditions are the main reason I felt I needed to offer laser therapy to my patients. Although there are options medically and surgically to help these conditions, they often continue to cause discomfort in pets for years. Laser therapy gives me one additional tool to improve the quality of life in my patients.
When treating these chronic conditions, we tell owners to expect to see about a 50 percent degree of improvement after the third treatment. In the short time we have been using the laser, this expectation seems to be very reasonable. We commonly get pet owners to say they see improvement after the first treatment, but it seems to only last about a day. Multiple treatments in a short period of time are needed to see the prolonged improvement for these chronic conditions.
Laser therapy certainly isn’t a cure all, but it is a safe therapy to use as a primary treatment for inflammatory conditions or to supplement more traditional treatments. I have even had laser therapy work better than the more traditional treatment options in a couple cases. It is also a reminder that even an “old school” guy like me can learn a new trick.
Chad Higgins, DVM has owned Amanda Animal Hospital for the last 18 years and sees dogs, cats, ferrets and other little furry critters.