Boo had to have her right front leg amputated last year. She now walks with a pronounced head bob and her neck gets tight and sore. She loves having it lasered!
Therapeutic lasers (also known as cold lasers or low level lasers) are a new and growing part of veterinary medicine. They are different from surgical lasers, which cut tissue and have been used in veterinary medicine for a while. Surgical lasers and therapeutic lasers are two different kinds of Class 4 lasers, meaning they are both powerful enough to cause burns and damage vision. Where surgical lasers cut, though, therapeutic lasers decrease pain, increase blood flow, and speed healing.
Photons of light emitted by the laser unit can penetrate tissues for up to a few centimeters. They are absorbed by cells and cause changes at a subcellular level. These changes can decrease pain signals, stimulate tissue growth and repair, increase stem cell proliferation, and have anti-inflammatory effects similar to nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and steroids. For instance, laser-delivered photons of light can increase the cellular production of nitric oxide, which in turn can relieve pain, decrease swelling, and stimulate faster wound healing by signaling more blood vessels to grow to the injured area. There is even some evidence that laser therapy can help with neuropathic pain, which is generally harder to treat than other types of pain.
I can now provide laser therapy in your home! It can be used for chronic inflammatory conditions such as arthritis as well as for wound healing (after a trauma like a snakebite, fight wound, abscess, or road rash), surgical incisions, tooth extraction sites, infected ears, inflamed bladders, etc. It can’t be used on eyes, as the laser beam can damage vision, and the vet, owner, and pet should all wear safety goggles while the therapy is being administered. (If you haven’t seen your dog wearing Doggles, as the canine goggles are called, you are missing out!) Burns don’t occur unless the laser is held in one spot for an extended period of time, and I am trained not to do that. We usually don’t treat tumors with laser therapy as it theoretically can speed tumor growth. However, if the animal is in a hospice situation where we are no longer trying to cure the cancer but only keep the animal comfortable, laser therapy could be part of the pain control plan as long as the owners understand it could speed up the tumor’s growth.
One of the most attractive things about laser therapy is that it typically feels good to the animal. It usually takes 2-5 minutes to treat a given area (tight neck muscles, for example, or an arthritic hip, or a skin wound). During that time many animals go from tense to relaxed; some even fall asleep. Conditions on the surface (like skin wounds) may need just 1 or 2 treatments, where deeper and more chronic conditions (like arthritis) may need 2-3 treatments a week for several weeks before they provide a full benefit. At that point they can usually be tapered off to a more manageable maintenance schedule. I have observed, though, that some patients seem to feel better after just a single treatment.
Cleo having her knee lasered after surgery. I say that “The Doggles are the best part,” but really the pain relief and accelerated healing are the best part!