Blue leads an active lifestyle: she runs four times a week around an enormous park in her hometown of Memphis, Tenn.; she likes playing Frisbee and loves swimming. But one day last November, Blue started limping which was odd because the German shepherd seemed fit and was only 3 1/2 years old. "She wasn't recovering as quickly as normal from a trek in the park. I thought that was just a sign of aging," says her owner Twila Waters, 43, with a wry chuckle.
In fact, Blue had hip dysplasia, a fairly common and sometimes crippling degenerative condition in dogs and cats. The cure a complete hip replacement would keep Blue in recovery for up to six months. So while Waters mulled the surgery, Blue's regular veterinarian sent Waters to see another local vet, Kathy Mitchener, who was trained in acupuncture, to treat Blue's pain. But Mitchener had a better idea. She offered a cutting-edge stem-cell transplant, a therapy not yet available to humans, that would potentially help Blue's hip repair itself.
The treatment took just two days last January. Mitchener had recently become certified to perform the stem-cell treatment, pioneered by the company Vet-Stem based in San Diego. She removed some fatty tissue from the dog's abdomen and shipped the sample to Vet-Stem's labs, where technicians used centrifuges to extract stem cells from the tissue. The cells were shipped back the next day, and Mitchener injected them into Blue's failing hip, where they adapted and developed into the healthy cartilage and tendon cells the animal needed. Within 36 hours, Waters says, "Blue was moving well, and you could see an ease in her gait." Vet-Stem kept a frozen store of Blue's stem cells, in case she suffers a relapse or has another orthopedic injury, but for now, Blue is fully cured and back to running and swimming and playing with her friends.
Vet-Stem's therapy is just the newest frontier in the booming field of alternative veterinary medicine which includes acupuncture, chiropractic and aquatic therapies and traditional Chinese herbal medicine an industry driven by pet owners who are increasingly willing to do or pay whatever they can to help their ailing pets. In the past decade, the number of vets who completed a 156-hr. training course given by the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society (IVAS) has quadrupled. IVAS also recently added courses in herbal and food therapy, and Tui Na, a manipulative treatment like chiropractic. According to IVAS spokeswoman Vikki Weber, 10% to 20% of the society's trainees end up quitting Western medicine altogether. "There are other possibilities out there besides pills or a doctor's knife," says Mitchener, a veterinary oncologist who incorporated alternative treatments into her practice four years ago.
Most progressive veterinary therapies are inspired by human health care. Burton Miller, who runs the Animal Wellness Center in Huntington Station, N.Y., became a practitioner of Eastern medicine for animals after suffering a skiing accident in 1996. He began reading up on alternative therapies for his injury and decided to apply the same kind of medicine to his animal patients. "I announced to my [clients] that everything I had ever told them was wrong," he says. Those pet owners promptly abandoned him, but today he has a thriving practice in which acupuncture and homeopathic medicines are the most common courses of treatment. (A veterinary visit including acupuncture with Miller costs $65 about what a human acupuncturist in Manhattan charges.)
Unlike these older, more popular therapies, Vet-Stem offers for the time being better medicine to animals than any allowed for their owners: even though it does not use controversial embryonic stem cells, the fatty-tissue stem-cell transplant has not yet secured FDA approval for use in humans. But pets are reaping the benefits in droves. Since Vet-Stem began offering its online certification course in January, more than 1,000 vets have signed up to take it, many at the urging of their patients' owners. The FDA has so far approved the treatment for animals' orthopedic problems in tendons and ligaments, and for bone fractures and arthritis. Vet-Stem says that some of its patients begin to feel better the same day, and most improve within a week. About 20% see no progress at all, but the company hasn't received reports of negative effects and it says it didn't see any in its earlier clinical trials. Vet-Stem is now testing stem cells to treat kidney disease in cats and liver disease in dogs.
The cure-all doesn't come cheap. A cycle of stem-cell treatment generally costs $2,000 to $4,000, including the extraction, surgeries and follow-up. (Canine hip-replacement surgeries, however, can be about four times as expensive.) Robert Harman, Vet-Stem's founder, says that because of the steep price tag, he initially thought wealthy horse owners would be his primary clientele. "Turns out there's not quite the same emotional attachment to horses as in the small-animal world," Harman says. "It used to be if your dog got sick, you just got a new dog. Now people want the best care, and they want to pay for it." At the start of the year, Vet-Stem's patient pool was 90% horses and 10% dogs. By the end of 2008, Harman estimates those numbers will shift to 60% dogs, 10% cats and 30% horses no doubt aided by word-of-mouth praise from pet owners like Waters. "It's comforting for me to know I've done what I can to alleviate Blue's pain," Waters says. "She loves to play so much that fixing her hip really improved both our qualities of life."