Like advances in human health, new ways to manage short-term and chronic pet health problems continue to evolve. While some pet health advances are becoming a new standard of care, other therapies will require decades of research before veterinary specialists sing their praises. In either case, there’s good news for pets today. New and emerging areas of animal medicine provide viable and valuable options for care. Much to the pet owners’ delight, their beloved furry friends can live well longer. And isn’t that what we all want?! So here’s to their health!
Stem cell therapy: Horses, dogs and cats, to a smaller degree, are the main beneficiaries of stem cell therapy, which is a form of regenerative medicine. In this treatment, healthy adult stem cells are introduced into damaged or diseased tissue. But researchers hope to extend this treatment to other farm animals, such as pigs (to ease arthritis), wild and zoo animals like the Bengal tiger (to treat lumbar spinal fractures) and marine animals including the bottlenose dolphin (to manage marine mammal type-2 diabetes and liver disease). Even so, local vets say pet owners are just beginning to see the true benefits of stem cell therapy for their pets.
“This branch of medicine is still in its infancy,” says Andrew Frishman, DVM, Progressive Animal Hospital, Somers, NY. “We see the use of stem cell therapy in degenerative diseases, including bowed tendons, ligament injuries, joint defects and osteoarthritis, yet there is still so much more to be learned.” Dr. Frishman notes that the next 10-20 years is going to see an explosion of advances and scientific validation in regard to stem cell treatment.
Cancer vaccines: Veterinarians are very excited about the melanoma (skin cancer) vaccine to treat dogs. Since many dogs may spend a considerable amount of time outdoors without sunscreen they may become susceptible to melanoma.
Finally, veterinarians have a natural way to combat the disease, Dr. Frishman explains. “The essence of natural medicine is to stimulate a pet’s own immune system to fight off disease. That is exactly what cancer vaccines do! Cancer therapy is no longer a “one size fits all treatment, but targeted therapy for individual types of cancer.”
How it works: Most vaccines for dogs contain a small amount of disease-causing organisms, such as a virus. The organisms have been modified so they don’t cause the disease, but help the dog’s immune system recognize and fight off the disease if the dog is exposed to it or contracts it. A cancer vaccine/ DNA-based vaccine uses information found in DNA to help the dog’s immune system recognize a specific protein found on cells that may normally be ignored, such as melanoma tumor cells.
“I have seen first hand the benefits of cancer vaccines in my patients,” said Dr. Wes Baff, VMD, “The melanoma vaccine has given dogs and their human counterparts hope and the potential for a brighter future.” Dr. Baff emphasizes that this cancer vaccine is given AFTER the diagnosis of melanoma. It is not a preventive treatment.
Cancer vaccines for dogs are also being studied for their benefit in bone and liver cancer. And human medicine may soon take a lesson from pet medicine as researchers consider the cancer vaccine for human clinical trials. Why? Scientists say that in gene expression on a molecular level, tumors in dogs and tumors in humans are almost identical.
The anti-vaccine movement: To vaccinate or not to vaccinate, that is the question. As with human pediatric medicine where parents may question the need to vaccinate their children against infectious and often deadly diseases, pet owners today may question the need for yearly pet inoculations. But the question to be answered really is: Do we over vaccinate? Vaccines are important and essential parts of both human and animal health. Many diseases are prevented and completely gone due to the use of vaccines.
As animals grow older, blood tests can be run to check the level of an animal’s immunity. Veterinarians use these tests to help determine if it is appropriate to booster a vaccine given at an earlier date. But there are alternatives to a vaccine booster. Dr. Frishman points out that “each pet case is different and there are also supplements/diet that can help boost an animal’s immune system.” That’s why it’s so important for pet owners to have open dialogs with their veterinarians whenever they have questions.
On the opposing side, recent research indicates that annual vaccinations may be unnecessary in most pet patients. Jeff Feinman, VMD, CVH, a certified veterinary homeopath, who offers holistic, integrated veterinary care for dogs and cats says, “Serious and even fatal diseases like cancer have been associated with vaccination. A strong immune system is required to protect against infections, and as the human research is showing, natural exposure is usually the best way to achieve this end.”
Heart repair: Heart repair for pets is so new, yet it has come such a long way. Today, top veterinary university centers such as UC Davis Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital in Davis, CA, and Michigan State University, Veterinary School of Medicine, East Lansing, MI, can do almost any procedure performed on humans. They can even use a cardiopulmonary heart-lung by-pass machine that allows the heart to be stopped for one-to-two hours while circulation in the body continues and surgery is performed. Yet, like transplantation, heart repair procedures in pets are expensive (approximately $10,000 – $12-000) and pose many risks to the pet patients during and shortly after the procedure.
Success rates from UC Davis are around 70 percent. But it’s important to note that because heart surgery in pets is so new, success here is defined as the pet patient surviving the surgery and living to leave the hospital. Despite this, many pet owners make the decision to go forward with heart surgery and the service is in high demand. The university has a waiting list for its regularly scheduled heart surgeries.
Vision surgery, Corneal transplants: Veterinary ophthalmologists are excited to be able to restore some sight to dogs that can no longer see well enough to chase squirrels or play catch. What helps them? Corneal transplants made of plastic which allows the dog’s body to recognize the new cornea as its own and reduce the likelihood of rejection. While peripheral vision is not restored with this procedure, dogs that have the surgery often see enough to enjoy “being a dog” again. This procedure has just been made available to dogs within the last decade.
Kidney transplants: Transplantation-that lifesaving procedure that has become almost commonplace in human medicine-is now being explored with modest success in cats. Yet, kidney transplants are expensive (approximately $8,000 – $12,000). And, beyond the procedure, pet patients will require lifelong use of costly immunosuppressive medications to prevent kidney rejection.
According to Dr. Frishman, “Currently, a little more than half of the cats that have kidney transplants survive six months. Of those that do, many have lived an additional three years.” He continues to say that success rates for transplant surgery generally go up as specific veterinary centers gain more and more experience with procedures.
What about our canine friends? Kidney transplants in dogs have not been as successful as in cats because the immune system of dogs differs from cats and people. Dogs tend to reject their new kidneys very quickly and they suffer with other complications, such as blood clots and infections after transplantation. Another factor that lessens the prognosis is that dogs tend to have the type of kidney disease (protein-losing) which complicates long-term care. Finally, it can be difficult to find a donor. To be considered for transplantation, the donor must be young, healthy, and related to the recipient.