Burke Vet Performs Stem Cell Therapy on Dogs with Hip, Knee Problems
Alternative therapy is touted as a cheaper, less painful alternative to surgery.
A Burke veterinarian is one of just a few dozen nationwide experimenting with in-house stem cell therapy for dogs who have problems with their hips and knees.
Dr. John Herrity at Burke Animal Clinic was inspired to look into stem cell therapy as an option for treating dogs with arthritis, joint and hip pain as part of his continuing search for alternative treatments for pets.
“You get frustrated treating the same thing again and again without getting results,” Herrity said, noting this is particularly true with chronic conditions that are hard to treat, like allergies or arthritis. “Especially with allergies [in dogs]. I can tell them they’re going to come back in two or three months for the same thing. You’re band-aiding, you’re just treating the symptom, not the problem.”
Last year, Herrity’s own dog, a seven year-old labradoodle named Bradley, developed a limp due to hip displaysia. He needed a total hip replacement—an expensive and very painful surgery. Herrity looked for other options and found stem cell therapy, offered in the form of a fairly simple procedure combined with a kit sent by MediVet America, a veterinary technology company. The therapy uses the animal’s own adult stem cells to heal areas of pain and inflammation.
“This is probably one of the most high tech ‘natural’ procedures we have,” Herrity said. “The body is really an extremely intelligent creature. It knows how to heal itself better than we do.”
Bradley had the surgery in December. A few months later, his limp has completely disappeared. Herrity said Bradley's now "back to his old self."
In the procedure, fat is extracted from behind the dog’s shoulder blade in the first surgery of the day. Stem cells are then harvested from the fat using a variety of enzymes, a centrifuge, a heating bath, and a laser that activates the cells. The stem cells are then injected directly into the arthritic and painful joints, with additional cells put into the body using an IV drip. These free flowing stem cells are attracted to areas of the body with the most inflammation.
“It’s a team effort from start to finish,” Herrity said. “As far as the technical aspects of the surgery, a senior vet student can do this. There’s really not a whole lot to do besides process the fat.”
Greg Sykes, whose dog Strata underwent the surgery January 6, had nothing but good things to say about the stem cell therapy. His 11 year-old dog, named for the bright blue eyes he had as a puppy and who enjoys kayaking with his owner, had arthritis in both hips and elbows, and a torn ligament to boot.
“[Since the surgery], Strata’s more active, he’s more alert,” Sykes said. “He wants to play more and for longer periods of time. We have some better days and some worse days, but he’s definitely on the mend.”
Sykes said Strata is already off all pain medication.
On this particular day, stem cell therapy was given to two dogs: Ashley, a Brittany spaniel and Leelah, a 2-year-old pitt bull mix. Both came from fairly far away to get the procedure. One was near the Gettysburg area in Pennsylvania, the other was from outside of Gainesville, Va. The surgeries were Herrity's 11th and 12th stem cell procedures.
“We’re the only clinic in Virginia that does the stem cell procedure in house,” staff manager Liz Olsen said. Other clinics harvest the fat on site and then send it to a company in California for processing. Eva Armour, a licensed veterinary technician at Burke Animal Clinic, said the off-site option yields fewer viable stem cells, as some of them die in transit. The in-house kit also allows the entire procedure to be done in one office visit instead of two, making it easier on patients and their owners.
The entire stem cell therapy procedure costs around $2,000, less than half the cost of a total hip replacement, which can run from $4,500 to $6,000. A surgery on a dogs knees can run from $3,500 to $4,000.
Herrity said he hasn’t had to do a knee surgery in more than a year due to the stem cell therapy option and various other alternative therapies he offers.
“I’m really happy I do less knee surgeries now,” Herrity said. “I have trouble keeping [the dogs] out of pain even with an epidural and [other drugs.]”
Herrity said he doesn’t know how long the effects of the surgery last, though he mentioned one veterinarian in Pennsylvania who has dogs who had the procedure three years ago that are still doing fine. He says the stem cell therapy has few side effects.
“Whenever you can take a chance and you have an upside and little to no downside—why not do it?” Herrity said.
He said he understands why people are skeptical of the procedure.
“Whenever stem cells are mentioned, it’s a hot topic,” Herrity said. “But I don’t see anything ethical to worry about it. We’re not dealing with embryonic stem cells, which is where I think the problems come from.”
He emphasized that the stem cells used in the therapy are the animal’s own, saying that many times, people jump to the wrong conclusion when they hear “stem cell therapy.”
“The important thing to note is we’re not manipulating the cells or putting anything in the body that wasn’t there before,” Olsen said. She said the risks from the procedure come from the anesthesia. Medivet America, the company that produces the machinery used in the therapy, has not seen any cases of complication with the therapy itself.
Other alternative therapies the Burke Animal Clinic offers to help pets include Veterinary Orthopedia Manipulation (VOM), which combines spinal manipulation and laser therapy to treat problematic areas along the spine. Olsen’s dog had VOM performed on her when he was in too much pain to even wag her tail.
“After VOM, when I picked her up, she was wagging her tail again,” Olsen said.
Herrity said he’s tried many new therapies to treat pets, keeping some and discarding others based on performance.
“For me, life is an adventure of seeking new and different ways of doing things,” Herrity said. “Anybody who thinks we know the best way of doing everything is a fool—I think there’s always a better way.”