DOGSNOWDog gains elbow room with stem cell therapy

By C. G. Worrell   |   Photography by Kelvin Andow

In 2010, Joe Ferguson surprised his wife, Kim, with a handsome Gordon Setter puppy that he won at a pheasant club banquet. Naming him Bodhi, they welcomed him to their tree-covered farm in Mantorville to live with two Brittany Spaniels, an orange tabby and one loud Amazon parrot. For three years, Bodhi enjoyed an idyllic life … until a joint disorder put his future on hold.

The Red Flag

From the start, Bodhi was a wild child with boundless energy. By age one, he ran three miles a day with Kim, hunted with Joe and spent the rest of his time frolicking with his dog-pal Willie.

“Those two were partners in crime,” says Joe. “They’d stalk squirrels from either side of the house and charge them at the backyard bird feeder.”

Most days the squirrels got away; occasionally they didn’t.

After Bodhi turned three, Kim noticed him limping during their morning jogs. “When he couldn’t keep up with Willie and me, I took it as a huge red flag,” recalls Kim who took Bodhi to
Dr. Garren Kelly at Meadow View Veterinary Clinic in Byron. “A physical exam and X-rays confirmed the diagnosis: Bodhi had dysplasia … in both elbows.”

A Crippling Disease

Elbow dysplasia is a complex orthopedic disorder identified in at least 78 dog breeds. It results in cartilage defects and misalignment of the bones forming the elbow joint.

While many dysplastic dogs remain symptom free, severe cases like Bodhi’s develop debilitating pain and lameness, especially since dogs bear 60 percent of their weight in the forelimbs. Conservative medical therapy offered Bodhi a 50 percent shot at long-term recovery.

“For several months we tried managing his pain with rest, joint supplements and anti-inflammatory meds,” says Joe, “but the limp just grew worse. It reached the point where his quality of life was terrible.”

“It broke my heart,” says Kim. “He couldn’t jog or fetch tennis balls anymore. The poor guy spent most of his day on the sidelines, hobbling around like a sad, old man while Willie chased squirrels alone.”

The Fergusons consulted with Dr. Kelly again. Bodhi hadn’t responded to conservative therapy, and invasive joint surgery offered a success rate of less than 60 percent.

Faced with such mediocre odds, Dr. Kelly raised the option of stem cell therapy. For several years, he had used the technique successfully to treat arthritic conditions of the elbow, hip and knee.

“All my canine patients who underwent stem cell therapy exhibited some degree of improvement from mild to marked,” Kelly says. “I felt Bodhi was an excellent candidate for the procedure.”

On the upside, Bodhi’s elbows were not yet grossly deformed by arthritis, he was still young and in good shape. The downside was cost; harvesting stem cells from a dog and re-injecting them into problem joints runs upwards of $1,800.

“We had to do something,” Kim insists, “and this option seemed less invasive and more promising.”

Cellular Magic

The media touts stem cells as the future cure for many ills. So what makes these mysterious microscopic entities so special?

“Think of them like the stem of a tree,” explains Dr. Nathan Staff, a Mayo Clinic physician who specializes in stem cell research. “They can multiply and branch into any number of tissues based upon the chemical signals they receive.”

Mature animals (including humans) still have stem cells. Even though they have branched far beyond the initial embryonic stage, they still have the potential to form certain tissues. For example, most stem cells housed in bone marrow are destined to become the various lines of blood cells. Stem cells stored in fat usually form cartilage, connective tissue and more fat.

“When stem cells are injected into a distressed joint, the hope is that they will form healthy tissue,” says Dr. Staff, “but the truth is we don’t know exactly how they react or even how long they live. What we do know is this: they modulate the immune response and in some cases have been shown to drastically reduce inflammation.”

To capitalize on this phenomenon, Dr. Kelly needed to collect stem cells from Bodhi’s fat.

“Usually I harvest them from an easy-to-reach fat pad in the dog’s shoulder region,” he says, “but Bodhi was so lean, I had to take it from his abdomen.”

The minimally invasive surgery paid off; the fat sample yielded abundant stem cell concentrate. Dr. Kelly injected each of Bodhi’s elbow joints with the recommended dose and sent the remainder to a medical cryobank for apportioning and storage. Since the positive effects of a single stem cell treatment generally last one to three years, stored vials are a convenient and economical way to repeat injections, if needed.

Shall We Dance?

Within weeks, Kim and Joe noted that Bodhi’s limp had improved. Even so, they took things slowly while his abdominal incision healed. At the six-week mark, Kim brought him back to Meadow View Veterinary Clinic to begin formal weekly rehab.

There Bodhi worked with Katie Nosbisch, a certified Canine Rehabilitation Practitioner. She implemented a stepwise program of muscle massage, passive range of motion exercises and activities designed to strengthen his limbs. She also prescribed regular stints in the underwater treadmill to boost his conditioning.

“Katie was so patient and helpful,” says Kim. “She trained me as much as she did Bodhi. We gradually incorporated her exercises into our daily routine: swimming, climbing hills, slogging through rough terrain—anything to strengthen his legs.”

“Kim poured lots of energy into Bodhi’s recovery,” says Joe, casting an affectionate glance at his wife. “They even danced the doggie tango each day—although I can’t say that was his favorite.”

Flash Forward

Kim’s investment of time yielded handsome dividends. Within six months, Bodhi was back to running with Mom, hunting with Dad and harassing the backyard squirrels with Willie. Today—18 months later—he shows no signs of stopping.

“I’m thrilled that stem cell therapy was an option for Bodhi,” says Kim. “And we have plenty of extra vials … just in case.”

C. G. Worrell is a freelance writer and part-time veterinarian at Heritage Pet Hospital.