stem cell therapy for dogs

Regenerative stem cell therapy is relatively new on the scene, but it’s already being used to successfully treat arthritis and related conditions in dogs and cats. Continuing research shows it may be able to do even more.

Stem cell therapy is used in dogs and cats with arthritis (both osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis), fractures and tendon or ligament injuries. To date, over 5,000 animals have had regenerative stem cell therapy.

What is a stem cell?

Within every animal’s body is a resource that has an incredible capacity to heal — the stem cell. These cells are present in small numbers in all tissues, and patiently wait for the chemical and biological triggers that arise from injury to get to work. They can differentiate into just about any cell type, such as tendon, ligament, bone, cartilage, cardiac, nerve, muscle, blood vessels, fat, and organ tissue. Their job is to quickly produce the correct cell types needed to repair the damage.

What is regenerative medicine?

Regenerative medicine refers to the use of stem cells to repair injury. When stem cells are isolated, concentrated and placed directly at the site of injury, we can “supercharge” the healing response and even begin to heal previously untreatable conditions. It is now known that fat tissue contains enough stem cells to make it a good source for collection and isolation. And most of our animals (and us too!) have a bit of spare fat tissue “hanging around”.

The San Diego-based company Vet-Stem holds exclusive rights to fat-derived stem cell therapy in veterinary medicine. The current approved uses of Vet-Stem Regenerative Cells (VSRCs) are for osteoarthritis (of the leg joints), osteochondritis dessicans (OCD), partial tears of tendons or ligaments, and fractures.

Cats always have to do things a bit differently, so they have plenty of stem cells in their blood. For cats, then, it is not necessary to collect fat tissue; we can collect blood instead. Because the stem cells are the animal’s own cells, there is no concern with tissues being rejected and no need for harsh anti-rejection drugs.

How does it work?

Like the conventional mainstay of arthritis relief (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs or NSAIDs), stem cell therapy reduces inflammation. But unlike NSAIDs, stem cell therapy actually rebuilds healthy tissue so the joint improves. During a day surgery procedure, a small amount of fat is collected from the animal, immediately placed in a special sterile transport fluid, chilled, and express shipped to Vet-Stem in San Diego. There, the cells are isolated under strict aseptic conditions to prevent contamination. The number of cells required to treat the patient are portioned out, and any extra are frozen and banked for later use. The treatment syringe is express shipped on ice back to the clinic, where it is injected into the joint to be treated. Most animals will require a light sedative to ensure they are comfortable and relaxed for the injection into their painful joints.

When should stem cells not be used?

In some cases of severe degenerative joint disease, the body produces extra bone around the joint and in the ligaments and tendons. This may make an injection into the actual joint space difficult or impossible. If the joint is completely unstable, as in the case of a knee ligament (anterior cruciate) rupture, or if there are bone or cartilage fragments inside the joint, these need to be corrected with surgery prior to stem cell therapy.
There are certain other situations when VSRCs are not recommended. These include cancer of all kinds, severe infection and topical wounds.

What’s next?

I am very excited about the future of regenerative medicine. Research into stem cell therapy continues and further development and refinement are ongoing. Vet-Stem is able to grow more stem cells in their laboratory, resulting in a virtually endless supply from only one collection procedure. Some anticipated uses of VSRCs to watch for include neurological, heart, kidney, liver and immune mediated diseases.

Setting the record straight

A lot of erroneous rumors surround stem cell therapy.

Myth: Stem cells come from aborted fetuses or embryos.
Fact: The stem cells used in veterinary regenerative medicine are not of embryonic origin. They come directly from the animal to be treated, and are used only in that individual.

Myth: Regenerative medicine is much more expensive than conventional therapy.
Fact: When costs of surgery such as hip replacement, medications, monitoring blood tests and treating side effects is taken into account, regenerative medicine may actually be less expensive than other options. Some animals may not be able to have conventional treatments or drugs due to other disorders. It is impossible to put a dollar value on a happy, comfortable mobile animal doing the things she loves to do with you. Be aware, though, that no two animals are the same. It is best to discuss individual care options and cost estimates with a veterinarian experienced in regenerative medicine. Expect to pay between $3,500 to $4,750 for the initial diagnostic testing, collection surgery and implantation. Vet-Stem’s fees include cell banking for one year; additional banking is currently billed at $250 USD per year.

Myth: Regenerative therapy cures arthritis.
Fact: Regenerative therapy is an arthritis treatment that decreases pain and inflammation and promotes healing. Most patients pursuing this therapy already have joints that are significantly damaged. They may also have had prior growth/conformational abnormalities, surgery or traumatic injuries that cannot be reversed. Stem cell therapy can be repeated when the effects wear off, typically from four to 12 months.

Myth: Stem cells can cause cancer.
Fact: This is a justified concern if a therapy involves embryonic stem cells because these cells actually do divide at an extremely fast rate, and have already been shown to have cancer-causing potential in animals and humans. However, VSRCs are adult cells, and have not been shown to form tumors unless the patient already has cancer. VSRCs should not be used in animals with cancer.

Myth: Regenerative medicine is only available in the US.
Fact: Vet stem regenerative medicine has also been available to Canadian veterinarians since November 2008.

Sophie’s success

Sophie is a three-year-old Rottweiler who had been lame on her right front leg since puppyhood. She had a condition called elbow dysplasia, and was given surgery to correct it. It was unsuccessful, and the result was that besides limping and being in pain all the time, Sophie became aggressive and fearful in the veterinary clinic, and to other dogs and people.

Sophie had stem cell implant surgery, and the day after woke up without any lameness. The next day, she was walking normally. The effects have been permanent, and she has not needed any pain medication since the surgery. If she plays too exuberantly, she shows some stiffness afterwards, but with a good night’s rest she’s back to walking normally.

That isn’t all. Sophie is so much happier that she can come into the clinic without incident, see other dogs and people on the street without growling, and can soon retire her pretty pink muzzle! Most animals don’t respond quite so quickly, and usually take one to two months before full results manifest.


Veterinarian Dr. Rona Sherebrin has been practicing integrative medicine for eight years, with a focus on Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine. She graduated from the Ontario Veterinary College in 1991, and became a Certified Veterinary Acupuncturist in 2005. She is the Regional Delegate for the Association of Veterinary Acupuncturists of Canada. She cares for animals at the Secord Animal Hospital in Toronto.