How laser therapy can treat and manage multiple conditions in pets – from arthritis and joint injuries to skin wounds and nerve degeneration.
Many veterinarians have been using laser therapy for quite a few years now. But it’s finally coming into its own as an essential part of mainstream, high quality veterinary medicine. Interest in therapeutic laser has grown dramatically and has stimulated many scientific studies exploring its benefits. In this article we’ll look at what therapeutic laser is, how it works, and how it can be used for healing your dog or cat.
In order to better appreciate how therapeutic laser might benefit your pet, it’s helpful to understand a bit about laser technology basics.
The term “laser” stands for “light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation”. A therapeutic laser emits this radiation in the form of “packets” of light energy called “photons”. Laser light is emitted as a single wavelength, chosen for its ability to penetrate tissue to the desired depth, as well as its ability to modulate cellular function.
Laser light photons all travel in the same direction in a beam with very little scatter or divergence. The biologic effects of laser on the tissue being treated is called “photobiomodulation” and includes a stimulation of increased activity within the mitochondria of cells – tiny structures sometimes referred to a cell’s “energy furnace”. Photobiomodulation provides a means of normalizing cell function through either the inhibition or stimulation of biochemical processes, without heating or damaging the tissue.
You may hear your veterinarian talk about the therapeutic laser’s wavelength. The wavelength influences the depth of penetration. Longer wavelengths penetrate deeper into the tissues while minimizing absorption by the pet’s hair and skin pigment. Superficial wounds and joint injuries can be treated with shorter wavelengths, while longer wavelengths are better suited for muscle injuries or for treating organs within the abdominal cavity.
Lasers are separated into classes based on their power. The most commonly used therapeutic lasers in veterinary medicine are Class III lasers (with an energy delivery of 1 milliwatt to 500 milliwatts) and Class IV lasers (with an energy delivery greater than 500 milliwatts).
- A lower watt laser provides less energy delivery to deeper tissues, so the time needed to deliver a treatment is longer. A lower powered laser is better suited for treating superficial structures.
- A higher watt laser allows treatment to be delivered over a shorter period. The laser energy is delivered with a “painting” motion over the affected area. The beam may be set to pulse in order to minimize the amount of energy absorbed by the pet’s coat and diverted from targeted tissues.
Benefits of therapeutic laser
To date, the majority of therapeutic laser research has been done in laboratories using cell cultures, but recently published studies have explored therapeutic laser effects in animals.
Therapeutic laser can treat many diverse conditions, including:
- Skin wounds
- Tendon and ligament injuries
- Edema (tissue swelling)
- Muscle injuries
- Nervous system injury/surgery
- Post-operative incisions and tissues
Therapeutic laser has been demonstrated to relieve both chronic and acute pain by affecting the involved nerves. Laser energy increases the speed of tissue repair by increasing local circulation, stimulating the immune system, and reducing inflammation.
Therapeutic laser has been demonstrated to relieve both chronic and acute pain by affecting the involved nerves.
Laser energy also enhances muscle healing. When creating a treatment protocol for your pet using therapeutic laser, your veterinarian will consider laser effects on the various tissues in order to maximize the outcome.
Optimal wavelengths, intensities, and dosages for laser therapy in pets have not yet been definitively determined, but this is changing as studies are published and as more case-based information is reported.
Your veterinarian will focus on safety as well as treatment outcomes when incorporating therapeutic laser into your dog or cat’s treatment protocol. Protective glasses with lenses rated to the specific wavelength of the treatment laser are important for both humans and animals in order to protect the retina of the eye. Laser energy should not be applied over a pregnant uterus, over tumors, over an open fontanel, over the growth plates of immature animals, or over the thyroid gland. A tattoo, black fur or black skin can result in light absorption and tissue heating – your veterinarian will adapt the treatment as needed.
The future of laser therapy
Therapeutic laser is of special interest in the area of nerve regeneration, particularly in human medicine. Dogs and cats also experience nerve issues as they age; as osteoarthritis develops and progresses; in the wake of intervertebral disk disease, and when they develop nervous system decline in cases of degenerative neuropathy/myelopathy.
Photobiomodulation has been demonstrated to support nerve regeneration, reinnervation of denervated muscle, and functional recovery following peripheral nerve injury. This is an area of active research that promises to have a significant impact on both human and animal patients.
Therapeutic laser clearly has a role in the treatment and management of multiple conditions in dogs and cats. Evidence strongly suggests that light energy at the appropriate wavelength and power density has the ability to modulate tissues at the cellular level to enhance healing. In fact, therapeutic laser may be one of the most underutilized treatment modalities in veterinary medicine; as more formal studies are completed, there’s no doubt the use of therapeutic lasers will continue to expand.
While it’s not a panacea, therapeutic laser can certainly make a positive difference in the lives of many dog and cat patients.
Two case reports
Hope had a heavy piece of pottery fall on the back of her head when she was only a few weeks old. She bled into her brain, leaving her blind, unable to eat on her own, and with great pain in her head. When she presented to us, she was pressing her head against the wall of her carrier to try to get relief.
Therapeutic laser was an important part of Hope’s overall treatment. Within two weeks, she was able to eat without assistance and her vision had returned. She has made a full recovery.
Payton experienced escalating lower back pain from osteoarthritis as she aged. Therapeutic laser increased her comfort levels, enabled a reduction in her pain medications, and helped her become more active.
Laser – a versatile tool
“We call laser the most versatile therapy tool in the toolbox because it can treat so many conditions, including wounds, skin conditions, lick granulomas, post-surgical incisions, tendon and ligament injuries, arthritis, CCL tears, IVDD and ulcers,” says Lisa Miksis, VP and Director of Marketing for Respond Systems, which specializes in Class 3b and Class 4 laser systems.
“Our laser products are designed for contact mode with the skin,” she adds. “This allows the therapist or vet to target the exact tissues they are treating, leading to consistent energy delivery and decreased treatment times.”
Lisa agrees with Dr. Downing that laser therapy has a very promising future. “New research papers are published monthly, investigating laser for conditions like renal failure, pneumonia, brain injuries and others,” Lisa says.