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Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy: It's For Dogs, Too

The high-tech treatment is now showing up in vet hospitals. We talk to the man who made it happen.

 |  May 18th 2012  |   1 Contribution


You've probably heard of hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) -- its healing powers are well known in the human medical community. Hyperbaric means "under pressure higher than normal at sea level." Patients are exposed to high-pressure oxygen in a specially designed hyperbaric chamber, and the treatment effectively oxygenizes the body's tissues.

Hyperbaric oxygen therapy is often used in combination with other forms of therapy to treat injuries and illnesses including wounds and burns, post-surgical swelling, sepsis, pancreatitis, necrosis, and stroke. It reduces swelling and inflammation, eases pressure and edema caused by head or spinal cord injuries, stimulates new blood vessel formation in healing tissues, improves control of infection, and promotes wound healing.

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Hyperbaric Chamber by Shutterstock.com.

Medicare has recognized its validity and therapeutic properties for 20 years. Only recently, however, has veterinary medicine harnessed that healing power for pets.

Calusa Veterinary Center in Boca Raton, Florida, was among the first animal hospital in the nation to acquire a hyperbaric chamber, which is more compact than ones for humans. "Treatment times last about one hour and are given one or two times daily," says Calusa's Dr. Andrew Turkell. "Most patients require no sedation and remain calm and relaxed during the treatment." The animals safely and painlessly inhale and absorb the oxygen.

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Lancey in a hyberbaric chamber.

"Under hyperbaric pressure, healing oxygenation is able to reach damaged tissue three to four times faster than normally transferred by red blood cells," he says. "The more oxygen that is delivered to tissues, the faster healing is achieved. This increased oxygen supply greatly benefits damaged, swollen, and inflamed tissues."

Dogs undergoing stem cell regeneration therapy can also benefit enormously from the treatment. Studies show that hyperbaric oxygen stimulates stem cell growth up to a whopping eight times their normal volume. "The future is bright for our ability to treat diseases which up to now were not part of our protocols, such as diabetes and kidney disease," Turkell says. At Calusa, a dog who was blinded in an anesthesia accident during a routine spay procedure at another hospital had her sight restored after 30 hyperbaric oxygen treatments.

Sofie the Yorkie, now 7 months old, came to Calusa two months ago in bad shape, reports her owner, Corinne Scholtz. A prior consultation with a veterinary neurologist was grim; the doctor had suggested that euthanasia would be the kindest option. "She couldn't see or hear; she had acute brain trauma," Corinne recalls. "She had lost sensation in her paws, and she couldn't eat or go to the bathroom on her own. She was bumping into things. I was devastated."

But Corinne wasn't ready to give up. At Calusa, Sofie began to show improvement after five "dives" (as sessions in the oxygen chamber are called, because the conditions in there are the same as on a scuba dive). "She seemed stronger and less tentative, and she made her way to the food bowl by herself. We're now on our 33rd treatment, and I think Sofie is healthier now than before she was injured! She's a functioning, happy dog. HBOT saved her life, and saved us so much heartache. It's an amazing healing modality."

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Dog at animal clinic by Shutterstock.com.

Another of Calusa's happy patients is a teacup Yorkie named Cartier who suffered from pancreatitis. "She's my oldest dog," says owner Nina Otto of Boca Raton, "and she could have very well died, as my friend's dog did. I begged my friend to try HBOT, but she resisted. My philosophy is, 'Nothing ventured, nothing gained.'"

For two and a half days, Cartier underwent treatments, logging a total of five hours in the chamber. She emerged cured after her last treatment.

Thrilled but not surprised, Nina was already familiar with HBOT's healing power: As part of her own health care regimen, she receives regular hyperbaric oxygen treatments, which she says leave her feeling "energized and ready to run the race!"

It's no surprise: Nina's husband Edgar, an entrepreneur, founded a human hyperbaric company in 1995. He recently sold his stake in the business for $150 million to start a new company, Hyperbaric Veterinary Medicine, which produces the pet HBOT chambers.

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Aftercare includes hugs and kisses.

Even the couple's pets are high-tech: Of their eight well-cared-for dogs, one is a product of canine cloning. Lancelot Encore (nickname: Lancey) was cloned in 2008 from a cryogenically frozen sample of DNA taken in 2003 from the Ottos' late Labrador Retriever, Sir Lancelot. Lancey stars in The Learning Channel's I Cloned My Pet, Part 2, airing Monday, May 21, at 10 p.m. (see a sneak peek). A female Lab was recently inseminated with Lancey's sperm, so the Ottos look forward to welcoming a litter of Lancey's pups.  

What made Edgar decide to make and market an HBOT chamber for pets? Simple, he says: "After selling my interest in the human hyperbaric company, I was left with nothing to do!" Joking aside, the 83-year-old entrepreneur adds, "When I started the human hyperbaric company, I was aware that this medical technology was not widely utilized. My motto is, 'Don't turn your back on change, because you could get run over.' Today, hospitals around the country are using HBOT to treat patients." He soon wondered why it shouldn't also be used for our best friends. After all, "animals suffer from many of the same disease states that we do." 

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Let's not forget the cats.

He set about making the technology available to patients on four legs, assembling vets, engineers, and designers. Some people experience claustrophobia in the hyperbaric oxygen chamber, "but animals don't, and dogs are nesting animals," Edgar points out. So unlike the human chamber, which is made of clear plastic to minimize that claustrophobic feeling, the pet chamber is a steel tube that's completely enclosed except for portholes that permit the animal to look out. It accommodates animals up to 180 pounds. After a year and a half of development, the first pet chamber was unveiled last October. And, yes, Lancey was one of the first to try it out. Although the strapping 4-year-old has no health issues, he receives occasional HBOT treatments as a prophylactic measure.

"It's a reasonably complicated piece of machinery," Edgar says of the chamber, "and it has to meet stringent pressure vessel specifications. It has to be carefully maintained, and as the manufacturer we train vets and their staff in the use of the chamber. You can't just walk up to this machine and flip a switch. I believe HBOT will become a standard treatment in the veterinary profession."

He adds, "It's probably going to take 10 to 15 years, the same as it did for humans. Actually, I think it's going to grow faster."

So, what's the price tag? HBOT is surprisingly affordable: It costs $125 per treatment, with a discount of 10 percent for 10 treatments.

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Almost done, pal!

Veterinarian Diane Levitan recently installed a hyperbaric oxygen chamber at her practice, Peace Love Pets Veterinary Care in Commack, New York, and is enthusiastic about its many benefits for her patients. "Oxygen delivered by HBOT can make the difference between cell death and cell recovery," she says. "There is no question that the addition of this treatment modality will enhance our ability to successfully treat many disease conditions. Over 1,000 human hospitals use HBOT; now we can apply that technology to our pets. It's phenomenal."

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