GILLETTE, Wyo. - Natasha is no longer a pup.
The 11-year-old German shepherd had been suffering from debilitating arthritis since she was 8 years old. Her owner, Keri Spears, said it was so bad that she seriously considered putting her down because she couldn't stand to see her suffer.
"She used to limp. You could tell that she hurt. She would hesitate at the foot of the stairs when I'd take her inside," Spears said.
The $200-a-month worth of pain medication Natasha was taking only masked the pain. It didn't eliminate it.
Yet when you look at Natasha, besides a few gray wisps in her fur, she seems more like a pup than a dog long in the tooth. Instead of hesitating and whining at the foot of the stairs, Spears said Natasha now sprints up them without hesitation.
Natatsha has been receiving laser therapy from Veterinarian Scott Worden of Thunder Basin Veterinary Clinic since October. The therapy has worked wonders on Natasha, Spears said.
"She's like a new puppy," Spears said. "She's a crazy dog at home now."
Gone is the constant supply of pain medication Natasha needed to get through the day.
"We try to make the dog comfortable to give it a few extra years. All we're doing is covering up the pain. We're not promoting healing," Worden said.
Not treating the root cause of the pain is what led Worden to invest in the $24,000 machine which has given Natasha a new lease on life.
Watching Worden use the laser wand on Natasha is strikingly similar to watching a character on Star Trek receive medical attention.
Worden, wearing protective glasses, rubs a wand that looks like a shower head over Natasha's body. The machine the wand is connected to, a Companion Therapy Laser, emits a continuous stream of beeps like a garbage truck backing up.
Slowly, he moves the wand back and forth, occasionally rubbing the laser on his head.
"It's good for hair growth, too," Wordan said with a laugh.
The benefits touted by proponents of laser therapy are that it helps reduce inflammation, which provides relief for ailments like arthritis and tendinitis. It also helps stimulate the body's own healing mechanisms to help reduce the time it takes to heal.
"More than 3,000 veterinarian hospitals are using some form of laser therapy," said Craig Hartshorn, the regional sales rep for the Companion Therapy Laser.
The Class IV laser being used in the machine affects the body on the cellular level causing several things to happen, said Narda G. Robinson, director of Colorado State University's Center for Comparative and Integrative Pain Medicine at the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biological Sciences.
"Laser induces a photobiologic reaction," Robinson said. "Which means the light enters the cell and leads to changes in the way the cell behaves, in terms of how much ATP (energy) becomes available for cell division, repair and maintenance, as well as what types of chemicals are produced that may affect the level of inflammation in the region."
"It controls inflammation by dilating the lymphatic vessels which drain the fluid out of the tissue back into your vascular system," Worden said.
The results from the increase in cellular division and increased blood flow means that the time it takes for the body to heal itself is reduced significantly.
Carl Bennett, the veterinarian marketing director for Companion Laser Therapy, said clinics that use laser therapy to repair open wounds have reported increased healing from laser use. A dog's average rate of new skin growth is about 0.5 millimeters a day. Animals treated with laser therapy saw new skin growth increase to 1.5 millimeters a day, said Bennett.
Robinson has been using lasers in her practice with good results.
"I use lasers in conjunction with medical acupuncture and massage," Robinson said. "Laser (therapy) provides an added element of healing and pain control. It helps reduce muscle tension, limit inflammation, and likely benefits nerve function."
Stacy Straight is amazed by her dog, Sydney. The 1 1/2-year-old blue heeler just finished a three-mile run with Straight on Friday without any problems.
That run is an amazing feat for Sydney.
Only nine months ago, both her hips were fractured in multiple places. She had been run over while hiding underneath the family pickup truck during a camping trip.
The prognosis was not good. One veterinarian said it could take up to nine months for the bones to heal. Another said she would need a $3,000 surgery to repair her fractured hips.
Worden suggested they try to use laser therapy and time to heal Sydney. The results were almost immediate.
"The first treatment you could see immediate relief in her," Straight said. "Within a month, we could see a remarkable change.
"By three months, she was pretty much close to normal," she said.
While Straight knows Sydney's healing benefited from her being such a young dog, she also believes the laser therapy helped in the healing.
"You could see the healing in the X-rays," Straight said.
Since laser therapy works so well for veterinarians, why aren't our physicians using it on human patients?
"In many respects, veterinarian medicine gets ahead of human medicine," Bennett said. The main reason why your doctor isn't rubbing a laser over your shoulder when you get aches and pains is the cost."
Insurance and Medicare only approve laser therapy in a few specific procedures, Bennett said.
"Things like tennis elbow or carpel tunnel," he said. "If it's not approved by insurance or Medicare, there's no incentive to buy it because there's no way for the doctor to recoup the costs."
Natasha can't wait for the treatment to end. She is tired of sitting still.
As she pulled Spears toward the door, it is hard to believe several months ago she was weeks away from being euthanized.
Spears' voice cracks slightly with emotion as she talked about how dramatic the change in Natasha has been.
"This machine helped save Natasha's life," Spears said. "And it's a good quality of life. It's not just keeping her alive for me."
As Spears finished talking, Natasha tugged on her leash, pulling toward the door.
It's not time to talk, it's time to play.