Stem Cell Therapy

By Tiffany Durzi, DVM, CVA, CCRT, CVPP; Ernest Ward, DVM

I’ve heard about stem cell therapy in dogs and cats. What is it?

Stem cells are unspecialized cells that are capable of renewing themselves though cell division. Under certain conditions, they can become a specific tissue or organ cell. In many tissues, stem cells serve as an internal repair system, replacing damaged or dead tissues by reproducing and turning into the needed cells.

"Stem cell therapy is often referred to as regenerative medicine, a technique that enables the body to repair and regenerate damaged tissues."

Stem cell therapy commonly refers to the process of placing stem cells from the body into diseased or damaged tissues, such as a torn ligament in the knee or perhaps an arthritic joint. This process is often referred to as regenerative medicine, a technique that enables the body to repair and regenerate damaged tissues.

There are two different kinds of stem cells: embryonic stem cells and adult stem cells. In veterinary medicine, adult stem cells can be found in all tissues in a pet’s body, including bone marrow and adipose (fat) tissue. Adult stem cells are capable of repair and regeneration of various tissues because they have the potential to differentiate into specialized cells of an organ.

Stem cells can differentiate into blood vessel, bone, cardiac, cartilage, fat, ligament, liver, muscle, nerve, and tendon tissue. Stem cells can currently be obtained from the bone marrow and fat (adipose) tissue in dogs, cats, and horses.

What conditions can be treated with stem cell therapy?

The most common use of stem cell therapies has been in the treatment of osteoarthritis in dogs and cats. Other potential uses include repairing bone, ligament, and spinal cord injuries and treating kidney and liver disease, cardiomyopathies (a form of heart disease), and certain inflammatory diseases of the skin and gut. Although these other uses are largely hypothetical at this time, clinical research into the use of stem cells to treat these conditions is ongoing.

Cancer treatment with stem cells is not considered appropriate because of the risk of causing the cancer to worsen, grow, or spread more rapidly if stem cells are introduced.

How is stem cell therapy performed?

After a definitive diagnosis of the condition has been made and your pet has been selected as a suitable candidate, there are essentially three steps in stem cell therapy:

  1. The first involves the collection of fat from your dog, cat, or horse. This procedure is typically performed while the patient is under anesthesia. Fat cells are most often taken from a small incision in the groin or shoulder region.
  2. The fat cells are then transferred to a specialized laboratory, where stem cells are obtained and concentrated.
  3. The final stage of treatment is injection of stem cells into the affected area, such as a hip, elbow, or knee joint. This step also generally requires some form of anesthesia for your pet.

Most cases will be performed as an out-patient procedure. Other than rest and supportive measures, minimal special care is required after treatment.

Is stem cell therapy safe?

Because the stem cells are from your pet, there is little risk of reaction or rejection. Any injection into a joint or tendon involves some risk of inflammation, infection, or injury. Your veterinarian will discuss your pet's specific risk factors with you before treatment. Stem cell therapy requires anesthesia, and although adverse reactions are rare, there is an associated risk.

"Your veterinarian will discuss your pet's specific risk factors with you before treatment."

Currently, there are no current guidelines with respect to stem cell therapy; however, the American Veterinary Medical Association is encouraging the study of stem cell therapy but cautions its use in clinical practice. The North American Veterinary Regenerative Medicine Association was created as a resource to share information related to stem cell therapy and research.

How can I tell if stem cell therapy will help my pet’s condition?

The decision to use stem cell therapy is complicated. It is based on your pet's specific condition, age, breed, previous treatment and response, severity and duration, and anesthesia/sedation risk. The laboratory providing the stem cells will also be consulted to help determine if your pet is a suitable candidate. Stem cell therapy should only be performed by a veterinarian with special training, who understands the benefits and limits of this therapy.

Unfortunately, there is currently no definitive way to predict which pets will benefit from stem cell therapy. Some patients respond favorably only to relapse in the future. Other patients experience remarkable improvement soon after treatment, while for others, it may take months for any appreciable changes to occur.

It is important to have realistic expectations as positive outcomes cannot be guaranteed. It is important to consider what other proven scientific treatments are available and if stem cell therapy is the best course of action for a pet.

How long does it take to work?

Some patients will show improvement within several days, while others will require several weeks before any changes are seen. It is important to note that not all patients treated with stem cells will respond positively. Stem cell therapy can be repeated in cases where poor to no improvement is observed.

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