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Stem Cell Therapy Treats Arthritis in Man's Best Friend

Update Date: Apr 10, 2013 04:06 PM EDT

Stem cell therapy can be the answer to your pet's arthritis. 

Kentucky based MediVet America, has more than a thousand clinics nationwide and is responsible for performing more than 10,000 stem cell procedures, about 7,000 of which were performed in the past 12 months.

The procedure is made possible by extracting a few tablespoons of fat cells from the pet's abdomen or shoulder, then spinning the cells in a centrifuge to separate out the stem cells that are naturally present in the fat.

The vet then mixes the cells with special enzymes in order to digest any residual fat and connective tissue. The mixture is activated by mixing them with "plasma rich platelets" extracted from the animal's blood cells and then stimulated by being placed under an LED light for 20 minutes.

Once the process is complete, the cells are newly awakened and injected back into the damaged joint.

Brad Perry of Alexandra, Ky. has two dogs: Cowboy, a golden retriever who suffered from arthritis and Mr. Jones, a mutt who tore both the ligaments in his knees. Perry tried treating the dogs with all sorts of medications, but nothing worked. He also knew that the medications could cause liver and kidney damage.

Perry opted to put Cowboy and Mr. Jones through a stem cell procedure. Within 10 days of receiving treatment the dogs were like puppies again, chasing his kids, running around in the park and swimming in the lake, Perry told ABC News.

The therapy works because stem cells are the only cells in the body that have the ability to transform themselves into other types of specialized cells, such as cartilage, making them a potent tool for repairing damaged and deteriorating joints, says Jeremy Delk, MediVet's chief executive officer.  There are 50 to 1,000 times more stem cells in the fat than bone marrow, a source that was more consistently used in animal and human stem cell therapy until the fat method started becoming more popular.

"As we age, humans and animals alike, our stem cells are starting to die off so we have fewer. What we are able to do with these techniques is isolate the cells in very large numbers, wake them up and put them back into the area that needs help," explained Delk.

Stem cell therapy from fat cells has been offered to pets for several years, although it is still not available for people because experimental procedures are often tested and perfected on animals long before they are approved for humans.

The procedure can be completed in one day at the vet's office. The stem cells can also be banked for future injection so the animal does not need to sit for an extraction again.

"This is potentially a game changer. We're seeing incredible results in the joints. We also see some unexpected improvements in other things, like skin conditions," says John Sector, owner of Shelby St. Veterinarian Hospital.

Stem cell therapy is also used on horses, donkeys, zebras and lions, according to Delk, who recently traveled to the Middle East to perform the therapy on some prized racing camels.

However, stem cell remedies, even for animals, are still considered experimental. Its use for joint regenerative purposes is exciting, but the lower regulatory bar in animal medicine is both good and bad, says Shila Nordone, the chief scientific officer at the American Kennel Association Canine Health Foundation, a nonprofit group that funds health research for dogs.

"It's good because we can do things sooner for our patients without 10 years of expensive clinical trials, but bad because we are still in the process of establishing best practices to ensure the procedures are the safest and most effective possible," she said.

Studies funded by the Health Foundation have been promising. One study of more than 150 dogs found improvements in joint stiffness, mobility and other joint health indicators in nearly 95 percent of arthritic cases. While some patients showed improvements in as little as a week, others required multiple injections and took up to 90 days.

The cost of a single procedure is $1800-$3,000, depending on the severity of the joint damage, the species and the area of the country. Even people with pet insurance should expect to pay out of pocket.

Owners like Perry believe it is worth every penny.

"They are completely different dogs. It absolutely changed their lives," he said about Cowboy and Mr. Jones. "It changed mine too, I got my dogs back."

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