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Stem-cell therapy for pets now offered - and disputed - in Canada

The lengths animal lovers can go to for their beloved pets just became even more extreme.

A company says it has developed a new stem-cell therapy for animals, promising to help ease the pain and improve the health of pets with problems such as hip dysplasia, osteoarthritis or ligament injuries.

Although another company, Vet-Stem Inc., has provided what it calls animal stem-cell therapy since 2002, it requires veterinarians to ship tissue samples to California. The treatment developed by Australian-based MediVet Pty. Ltd. allows veterinarians to perform the entire procedure in their clinics in a few hours.

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Stem-cell therapy is still controversial, even for humans, with scientists warning that reliable uses are far off.

For the new treatment, veterinarians cut fat tissue from animals and use a centrifuge and other technology to separate and activate millions of dormant stem cells, the company said. The cells are injected back into the animal at the problem site, such as the hips, and into the circulatory system.

MediVet spokesman and veterinarian Mike Hutchinson, who was in Mississauga on Friday to perform the treatment for the first time in Canada on a Newfoundland dog named Lexi, said owners start to see results in a few days.

Even though these therapies are experimental and don't come cheap - the new treatment will cost about $1,800 - veterinarians anticipate pet owners will flock to it.

"I think it'll be huge, to be honest," said Erik Sjonnesen, owner and veterinarian of Malton Veterinary Services in Mississauga, where the first new treatment was performed. "People will go to extreme lengths to get their pets healthy… they are just part of our families."

However, the biomedical community is urging caution on such therapies.

Isolating stem cells is a highly complex process that can't be accomplished in a few steps at a veterinary clinic, said Thomas Koch, adjunct professor in the department of biomedical sciences at the Ontario Veterinary College at the University of Guelph. Even if it were that simple, the medical application of stem cells is still in its infancy, he added. Leading scientists are working to figure out how stem cells can be used to cure disease or ease pain, but major breakthroughs are still beyond the horizon.

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The International Society for Stem Cell Research has set up a website ( designed to warn the public about companies that claim to offer stem-cell therapies, since virtually all lack the scientific evidence to show they work.

Prof. Koch said consumers should know about this.

"What I always say is that right now, clinical application [of stem-cell medicine]is preceding scientific evidence," said Prof. Koch, who is also an associate professor at Aarhus University in Denmark. "That's the bottom line. None of this is proven and these guys go out and say they offer stem-cell therapy. They have no idea what the cells are."

Dr. Hutchinson said critics of the company and its treatment should listen to people who have seen positive results in their pets.

"The skeptics need to start reading because there's … 7,000 animals that have been treated with stem cells in the United States alone in the last few years," Dr. Hutchinson said. "Eighty per cent of the people that were surveyed … said the quality of life in their dogs was much better."

Most of the positive evidence of these therapies is anecdotal, subjective and difficult to verify, Prof. Koch said.

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Although it's possible MediVet's treatment has some physiological benefit for animals, Prof. Koch said, the lack of solid scientific evidence makes him wary. He also said it would be wise to question companies that offer stem-cell therapies.

"They're generating a lot of hope and hype and expectations that I think [are] unwarranted at this point in time," he said.

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About the Author

Carly Weeks has been a journalist with The Globe and Mail since 2007.  She has reported on everything from federal politics to the high levels of sodium in the Canadian diet. More

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