July, 2013, and Jazz, an Australian Shepherd, is suffering. Both his hips have degenerated badly due to canine hip dysplasia and even slow walking is an exercise in pain for this much loved pet. His joints have degenerated so badly he is beyond a hip replacement, which would have to be performed in both hips.
In discussion with the owner, a last roll of the dice would be to try stem cell therapy. One month later and Jazz is not only walking freely but even trotting and galloping, pain free. The owner reports that she cannot even stop him jumping, but at least when he does there’s no pain.
Research in the world of stem cells is accelerating now without the fear of hideous use of animal or human parts to advance work in this field.
Two important advances allowed stem cell therapy to become available to everyone, including our pets. Firstly, finding that there is a large number of stem cells located in fat tissue. In the past, fat was simply considered a store of calories, but research showed it is also an area that stores stem cells. Gram for gram there are even more stem cells in fat than there are in bone marrow, an area that is thought to be very high in adult stem cells.
The second advance occurred by learning how to harvest and stimulate the stem cells into action. Fat from the patient is placed through various solutions that extract the lipid component and eventually leave stem cells. Thanks to Albert Einstein, lasers are used to stimulate these cells.
In veterinary practice there are broadly two types of stem cell therapies available. There are stem cells that have been harvested from another dog, which your veterinarian can purchase and inject into your pet. Or your veterinarian can take fat from your dog, cat, horse, or indeed any pet, and send this to a laboratory where stem cells will be harvested. Some will be returned for immediate use into your pet while the remainder can be frozen in liquid nitrogen for future use by your pet.
While no testing has been performed to compare the two methods, many people prefer the option of using their own animal’s stem cells with the obvious benefit of no adverse immunological reaction. Also, the laboratory will use a complex piece of equipment called a “cellometer” which will be programmed to measure the number of live stem cells retrieved from your animal’s fat. This will allow your veterinarian to collaborate with the laboratory technicians so an exact dose can be measured in each syringe, ensuring correct delivery of stem cells into each joint or tissue to be treated.
It is imperative that before you embark on stem cell therapy for your pet that you realise it is not the universal panacea. There is no 100% guarantee, but in the majority of cases there is always improvement, and sometimes it is spectacular.
The costs, too, have become more affordable. When it was first used the cost was some $15,000. Nowadays, it has decreased to around $2,500. Some pet insurance companies cover this cost, which seems an economically sound decision because the cost of a hip replacement is around $10,000.
In Australia, stem cell therapy came under the spotlight when Professor Alan Mackay-Smith was awarded the honour of Australian of the Year because of his work in stem cell research. Realising the nerves of the nose were able to regenerate, Professor Mackay-Smith took some of these from a paralysed man’s nose and purified stem cells from this tissue. These were then injected above and below the lesion in the spinal cord and the man was eventually able to stand and walk again!
This scientific advance has been equated to man landing on the moon. When one thinks about famous actor Christopher Reeve, who played Superman, he pleaded for someone to try stem cells on his severed spinal cord. His plea fell on deaf ears, yet he might be alive today if this technology was available.
Hopefully, many lives might now be saved because of the groundbreaking work allowing humans and pets alike to benefit from stem cell therapy.

Dr Rob Zammit is the director of Vineyard Veterinary Hospital, and has dedicated his life to caring for animals and teaching others to enjoy that passion. He has worked on such programs as A Country Practice, Burkes Backyard and 2GB. Dr Zammit’s first love is veterinary science, with a special interest in small animal reproduction work.