By Heather Larson
As a dog owner, you want your pet to have the best quality of life possible. So when he’s uncomfortable or in pain for whatever reason, alleviating his distress moves to the top of your agenda. In many cases, laser therapy can help.
This increasingly popular treatment option goes by many names: red light therapy, photobiomodulation therapy (PBMT), and low-level laser therapy (LLLT).
Benefits of Laser Therapy for Dogs
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. Robin Downing, hospital director of the Windsor Veterinary Clinic in Colorado. As more robust studies have been carried out, interest in therapeutic laser for treating various conditions has grown dramatically, Downing explained in a recent article published by the Integrative Veterinary Care Journal.
Studies undertaken usually isolate one type of medical issue dogs might have and investigate how laser therapy helps with that problem. In one study, the participating dogs all had interdigital follicular cysts (painful nodular lesions) on the feet and 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.
Many other health issues have also 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 Downing, who focuses her attention on the whole patient in her practice. “In fact, any place we find inflammation and/or pain, we can apply the principle of photobiomodulation.”
Photobiomodulation, another name for laser therapy, means using non-ionizing light sources in a non-thermal (non-heat generating) process, says Downing. During this process, cells and tissues are activated at the level of the mitochondria—the structure that produces energy for the cell. 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.
Although most often used as a treatment for musculoskeletal pain, Downing says, laser therapy can also help:
- Surgical wound healing
- Traumatic wound healing
- Increase the metabolism of specific tissues
- Reduce the formation of scar tissue
- Improve nerve function and nerve regeneration
- Release of painful trigger points
Dr. Erin Troy, owner of Muller Veterinary Hospital in Walnut Creek, California, further explains that laser therapy reduces pain and inflammation and promotes the healing of many tissues in the body, including skin, ears, gums, muscles, and tendons.
How Does Laser Therapy 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 Troy, an integrative 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.
During a typical treatment, the pet will lie on a padded bed or blanket on a table or the floor, Downing describes. “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 retinas while the laser is in use.
Frequency of treatments varies depending on the type of laser used, the disease being treated, and whether it is a chronic or acute issue. Typically, 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, several times the next week, and then increases the time between treatments until she’s attained her set goal.
Downing says the length of a single laser treatment depends on the power density of the laser unit. Lasers are categorized into four classes, with class 4 delivering the highest power output. According to 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.
The costs of the procedure can also fluctuate. “Single treatments typically cost anywhere from $40 to $100 each,” says 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.
Multimodal Pain Management
Laser therapy can be a big part of a multimodal pain management program, says 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 painful patient also has cancer or heart, kidney or liver disease that prohibit the dog from using traditional therapies like medications, Troy adds.
Not only can it be paired with other therapies, it should be, Downing says. “Therapeutic laser complements other pain management strategies—both pharmacologic and non-pharmacologic,” she says.
Risks of Laser Therapy
A therapeutic laser shouldn’t be used in certain cases, Downing says. For instance, applying a laser over a tumor site could accelerate the tumor growth. It shouldn’t be used over a pregnant uterus, either.
Although some types of low-level lasers are advertised and sold for home use, 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, it probably can’t do much good.
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 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, 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.”
Picture courtesy of Dr. Robin Downing