Updated November 28, 2020
Laser therapy for dogs is now something that I get asked about most days. That’s because it’s being offered for problems that are very frustrating to both dogs and owners. These are conditions like:
- Arthritis & hip dysplasia
- Degenerative myelopathy
- Cruciate rupture or torn ACL
- IVDD & other spinal diseases
- Soft tissue injuries, like ligament, tendon and muscle tears
- Recovery from surgery and wound healing
- Skin conditions and ear infections
But does it work? Is this relief for suffering dogs or just another false hope?
Dog Laser Therapy Studies
I’ve read the scientific literature on cold laser or low level laser therapy (LLLT) in dogs. This is the direct and controlled irradiation of target tissues with Class 3 or Class 4 lasers. Here are the key findings:
Arthritis & Hip Dysplasia
There are no placebo controlled studies on the effect of lasers on arthritis in dogs. Which is a shame, because this is where it’s being used most in practice. Therefore, we have no evidence to guide us either way.
In humans, a 2019 review paper studying knee osteoarthritis found that LLLT reduces pain and disability more often than could be explained by chance alone. This suggests that LLLT could work in dogs since we share a similar disease process. However, it’s also important to note that 2019 consensus guidelines for the non-surgical management of human osteoarthritis strongly recommend against laser therapy, stating “No efficacy, implausible biological mechanism”.
My personal suspicion is that it will work best for knee-like joints where there isn’t much soft tissue between the beam and the target.
Im sorry, I really wish we could offer something for these dogs. However, there is zero evidence for LLLT and almost zero chance that it will help. The cause of the spinal changes in degenerative myelopathy is poorly understood. It certainly isn’t likely to either respond to laser or be accessible by it.
Cruciate Rupture or ACL Tears
Although unstudied, there is very little chance that laser therapy will make a torn ACL better before surgery. That’s because the main problem is the instability of the joint.
After surgery, there is mixed evidence about whether LLLT helps the recovery. One study found no improvement in stiffness, function, quality of life or load but did find a small improvement in gait at 8 weeks. Two other studies found no difference.
IVDD & Back Pain
Once again there is no evidence in either in dogs or humans that laser therapy will help with spinal disc prolapse or collapse. This is the condition well-known in Dachshunds that you can read about here. The same goes for spondylosis and lumbosacral stenosis.
It is however possible that LLLT will reduce the discomfort associated with these conditions. That’s because a 2017 review in humans found that laser therapy reduced pain in adult patients with musculoskeletal disorders.
The paper above is just as relevant here. It’s quite possible that low level laser therapy may also have uses for chronic sprains, such as we see commonly in older, overweight or very energetic dogs.
Nearly all of these get better quickly with a combination of rest, weight loss and anti-inflammatories. However, there are always a tricky few for which laser would be worth trying.
Surgical & Wound Healing
No studies have yet demonstrated a benefit of laser therapy in wound or fracture healing in dogs. However, wounds that heal badly aren’t very common and most studies used fresh uncomplicated surgical wounds instead. These probably always heal the same regardless.
Studies in rats have shown significant benefits of laser therapy in wound healing. Therefore, it’s reasonable to expect that if we can study the right (or wrong!) injuries in dogs we might see a benefit. An example might be the large amounts of skin loss we see after car accidents.
Dermatitis & Atopy
There is one study of dermatitis in the feet of dogs. It showed equal improvement in both the treated and untreated feet. This, the authors explained as the placebo effect! (Surprised? Read about placebo effects and pets here).
In other words, no real benefit. These days with all the excellent and safe treatments for dermatitis in dogs, there should be no reason to use LLLT except as a last resort.
Dog Laser Therapy Side Effects
The benefit of cold laser therapy in dogs is that it is very safe. With a properly calibrated machine and knowledgeable operator, there is almost no risk of harm.
The only side effect you’re likely to see is a lighter wallet. LLLT machines are very expensive, and therefore treatment costs can add up quickly. If you’re OK with this, dogs seem to tolerate the visits well and adverse effects are rare.
Veterinary Cold Laser Protocols
Protocols vary a lot based on your vet’s preferences and the condition being treated. They could go from once a week for four sessions up to every few days for ten sessions or more. The actual time of laser therapy is usually less than ten minutes.
And will it work? My personal view is yes, but not by much. The strongest evidence lies with joint problems. I would be quickest to recommend it for the dog with arthritis when other treatments aren’t good enough. But I can’t help wondering if a similar effect could be had by gentle warming of the affected joint for a similar time.
If you want to try cold laser on your dog, please ask. We’ll be happy to refer to a local centre where it can be done.
Just having another option is a good thing and I look forward to more good science to help us make a choice. When it appears, you can be sure I’ll put it here.
By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. These blogs are from a series regularly posted on email and Twitter. Subscribe via email here to never miss a story!
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