Reviewed and updated for accuracy on May 8, 2019 by Dr. Hanie Elfenbein, DVM, PhD
As a dog owner, you want your pet to have the best quality of life possible. So when your pet is uncomfortable or in pain, alleviating his distress is more important than anything else.
Laser therapy for dogs can help in many cases by promoting healing and reducing inflammation and pain.
This increasingly popular treatment option goes by many names: red-light therapy, photobiomodulation therapy (PBMT) and low-level laser therapy (LLLT).
So how and when can it help pups to recover?
Benefits of Laser Therapy for Dogs
Many canine health issues have responded positively to laser therapy. “Therapeutic laser is used to treat a myriad of conditions, including osteoarthritis, intervertebral disc disease, lick granuloma, cellulitis, and others, in dogs,” says Dr. Robin Downing, hospital director of the Windsor Veterinary Clinic in Colorado.
“In fact, any place we find inflammation and/or pain, we can apply the principle of photobiomodulation,” she says.
Dr. Erin Troy, owner of Muller Veterinary Hospital in Walnut Creek, California, agrees that dog laser therapy reduces pain and inflammation and promotes the healing of many tissues in the body, including skin, ears, gums, muscles and tendons.
Veterinarians are also using laser therapy for dogs as part of their multimodal approach to address ear infections, which often recur or become chronic.
Dr. Downing says that laser therapy for dogs can also help with:
Surgical wound healing
Traumatic wound healing
Increasing the metabolism of specific tissues
Reducing the formation of scar tissue
Improving nerve function and nerve regeneration
Releasing of painful trigger points
Speeding the healing of infections
How Does Laser Therapy for Dogs Work?
Therapeutic laser therapy uses light energy, which is cold or low-level, to work its “magic.” Light used at specific frequencies causes a physiological change at the cellular level, explains Dr. Troy, an integrative veterinary practitioner.
These changes can include replenishing adenosine triphosphate (ATP, the molecule that carries energy in the cells of every living being), reducing inflammation and decreasing pain transmission.
While the exact method of action for laser therapy has not yet been identified, it is thought that, in essence, it provides a “jump start” to the cells needed for healing and other body processes.
What to Expect During a Dog Laser Therapy Session
During a typical treatment, the pet will lie on a padded bed or blanket on a table or the floor, says Dr. Downing. “I generally deliver my treatments on my own, using a handheld device, with the animal simply reclining,” she says.
“Sometimes the owner positions himself or herself by the patient’s head and pets them while we chat during the treatment.” Both the dog and the people in the room must wear goggles to protect their eyes while the laser is in use.
How Long Does Each Laser Therapy Session Last?
Dr. Downing says that the length of a single laser treatment depends on the power density of the laser unit but is usually under one minute per site. Lasers are categorized into four classes, with Class 4 delivering the highest power output.
According to Dr. Downing, the most commonly used therapeutic lasers in veterinary medicine are Class 3 and Class 4. The higher the power of the laser, the shorter the time that is needed to deliver a particular dose of energy into the animal’s tissues.
How Many Laser Therapy Treatments Will Your Dog Need?
The frequency of dog laser therapy treatments varies depending on the type of laser used, the disease being treated, and whether it is a chronic or acute issue. Typically, Dr. Downing treats her patients two to three times per week for two to three weeks, and then reduces the frequency depending on the outcome she achieves.
For very acute, painful conditions like a ruptured anal gland, she treats the dog daily for three to five days, then several times the next week, and then increases the time between treatments until she’s attained her set goal. The first treatment for surgical wounds is done before the animal even wakes up.
How Much Does Dog Laser Therapy Cost?
The costs of the procedure can also fluctuate. “Single treatments typically cost anywhere from $40 to $100 each,” says Dr. Downing. “Most practitioners bundle treatments and provide a discount to make the treatments more affordable. Then the treatments can be used at whatever pace seems optimal for the patient.” The fee often also includes other forms of care.
The Research Behind Dog Laser Therapy
Although laser therapy has been available for 40 years, evidence to support its use for alleviating pain and accelerating healing has only recently emerged, says Dr. Downing.
As more robust studies have been carried out, interest in therapeutic laser for treating various conditions has grown dramatically, Dr. Downing explains in an article published by the Integrative Veterinary Care Journal.
In one study, dogs with interdigital follicular cysts (painful nodular lesions) on their feet responded well to laser therapy. Another study, conducted by The Canine and Conditioning Rehabilitation Group, reported that wound healing in dogs significantly progressed with LLLT treatments.
Using Dog Laser Therapy With Other Treatments
Laser therapy for dogs can be a big part of a multimodal pain management program, says Dr. Troy. “It can be paired with acupuncture, massage, chiropractic care and hydrotherapy, as well as with medications and supplements.”
Because laser therapy increases the comfort and mobility of the pet with relatively few side effects, it can help when a patient that’s in pain also has heart, kidney or liver disease that prohibits the dog from using traditional therapies like prescription pet medications, Dr. Troy adds.
Not only can it be paired with other therapies, but it should be, Dr. Downing says. “Therapeutic laser complements other pain management strategies—both pharmacologic and non-pharmacologic,” she says.
Risks of Dog Laser Therapy
A therapeutic laser shouldn’t be used in certain cases, Dr. Downing says.
For instance, applying a laser over a tumor site could accelerate the tumor growth. If a cancer has metastasized, meaning it’s spread to other areas, laser therapy should not be used, as there is a possibility of targeting cancer cells which could then accelerate the cancer growth.
It also shouldn’t be used over the uterus of a dog that’s pregnant, either.
Although some types of low-level lasers are advertised and sold for use at home, Dr. Downing advises against treating your own dog. “An effective therapeutic laser is a powerful medical device and must be utilized/applied by medical professionals,” she says.
“Many different decisions go into creating a treatment protocol for a particular condition for an individual patient. Lasers of such low power that they cannot cause any negative outcomes are ineffective in creating photobiomodulation.”
In other words, if a laser is so weak that it is perfectly safe for home use, it probably can’t do much good.
Dr. Troy adds that many effective therapeutic lasers can cause burning of the retinas, and some can cause burning of the treated tissues if used incorrectly. That’s why owners should always seek dog laser therapy treatment from a reputable veterinarian.
Once dog owners understand what therapeutic laser treatments do and witness how they work on their dogs, they are all in, Dr. Downing says.
“No matter where we encounter pain in our patients, and no matter the reason for their pain, therapeutic laser can generally make a contribution toward improvement,” she says.
By Heather Larson
Featured image courtesy of Dr. Robin Downing