Times Union - Stem cell treatments offer relief to arthritic animals

2010-01-26 -- Carol Ball already had seen one of her dogs suffer from crippling arthritis.

Charlie, her 11-year-old springer spaniel, lived with the pain for years until she ultimately decided to have him euthanized in February 2006 to spare him additional torment.

At the time, there wasn't another option.

But in 2008, when her black-and-white springer spaniel, Joey, showed touches of arthritis even after the ligaments in two of his knees were replaced, her veterinarian could offer another course of treatment: stem-cell therapy.

In the therapy, stem cells, which produce chemicals that reduce inflammation and pain, are extracted from the animal's own fatty tissue. The cells are then injected directly back into the arthritic joints, where they can develop or change into other cells necessary for repair.

Pets that receive the treatment typically find relief within a month or two, says Keith Clement, the veterinarian at Burnt Hills Veterinary Hospital who cared for Joey, but results have been observed as early as within three days of treatment.

Before the stem-cell therapy, Joey used to lag behind during walks. Since the treatments, Ball says 4-year-old Joey simply doesn't wear out and keeps busy roughhousing with her other dogs.

"He has had absolutely no problems," she says. "He's a very active dog. We do a lot of off-leash running and hiking together. His life is wonderful."

Although some countries use the same stem-cell therapies on humans to treat conditions such as arthritis, it has not received Food and Drug Administration approval for human use in the U.S.

Clement was the first veterinarian in the Capital Region to be certified in the treatment regiment by Vet-Stem, a San Diego-based company that started the process in 2004 and does the work of extracting the stem cells from the fat that's surgically removed by veterinarians. Clement first used the therapy in April 2008, and since then about 10 Capital Region practices have begun offering the service, including Shaker Veterinary Hospital in Colonie, Upstate Veterinary Specialties in Latham, Nassau Veterinary Hospital and Animal Hospital of Niskayuna. (To see the full list, visit and type in your ZIP code.)

Since April 2008, Clement has treated 45 to 50 dogs and one cat. All but five of the pets were treated for arthritis, he says, the most common application for the stem-cell procedure. Vet-Stem also approves experimental use of the treatments for issues such as liver disease and kidney disease.

About 85 percent of patients respond to treatment, Clement says, and it's unknown why it's ineffective in some animals.

The therapy has no side effects, Clement says. The only risks are those faced anytime an animal receives anesthesia, which is required for Clement to surgically remove the samples of fat from the patient's abdominal area before sending them to Vet-Stem.

Clement says typical treatment for arthritis would be to put the pet on a regimen of supplements such as glucosamine; nonsteroidal medicines, which can cause stomach irritation; and in some cases surgery such as hip replacement, which can cost $5,000 per hip.

On average, stem-cell therapy costs $2,700 to $3,000 for the treatment of three to four joints, Clement says. Because fatty tissue contains so many stem cells, patients often have more than are needed for the treatment and the remaining cells can be cryopreserved and stored for future use. Ball pays an annual storage fee of $150 after the first year, she says.

Arthritis is a degenerative condition, and stem cells don't actually make bad joints healthy again, so eventually, pets will need "booster treatments" as their arthritis worsens.

How long the treatments will last varies, Clement says, but he'd expect most pets wouldn't need additional treatments for 18 months to three years.

For many pet owners, the treatment is worth the investment, Clement says. His own golden retriever, Buster, who suffers from severe hip dysplasia, had the treatment when he was 7 months old to slow and curb arthritic changes.

"If you have to put a dog to sleep because of chronic joint pain, it's horrible. To be able to offer something that will extend their life and their quality of life ... is a good thing," he says.

PDF IconClick here for the full story