Stem cells: A beneficial therapy or a waste of money?


Stem cell therapy (aka regenerative medicine) is becoming all the rage in veterinary medicine.  Initially used only to treat damaged horse parts (tendons, ligaments, and joints) the repertoire of stem cells has expanded to treating dogs, primarily for management of arthritis symptoms.  Even a few kitties are getting in on the act as regenerative medicine is investigated as a means of restoring health to their aged kidneys.

Here’s a rundown on the logistics of stem cell therapy. The process begins with the veterinarian harvesting fat or bone marrow samples from the affected individual.  These samples are then sent off to a specialized “stem cell company” for processing. Recently, one company, MediVet America, has provided the option for vets to propagate stem cells within their own hospital setting. Once harvested the stem cells are injected into the patient’s affected body part(s) and/or are administered intravenously.  Extra cells can also be “banked” for future use. And all of this for a price of $2,000 to $3,000, on average.

In theory, these stem cells have the potential to differentiate into bone, cartilage, and many soft tissue types.  Why do I emphasize, “in theory”? To date, there is no proof that the stem cells, once injected into the body, do actually become the cells we are hoping for.  Perhaps any observed benefit is a result of biochemical alterations of the cells already present rather than regeneration of new and improved cells. 

Not only is there a paucity of information about what actually happens to the cells after they are injected, there is a surprising lack of evidence-based data that supports any benefit of stem cell therapy.  In this regard, it appears that the stem cell therapy cart has pulled way ahead of the horse- unusual in the world of “western medicine” where veterinarians are typically reluctant to embrace a particular therapy without it having survived the scrutiny of evidence-based medicine.  Yet many western trained practitioners readily offer forth stem cell therapy to their clients based on anecdotal information (individual client impressions, vignettes told by other veterinarians, marketing materials from stem cell laboratories). 

According to a recent article in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (JAVMA), Dr. Robert Harman, CEO of Vet-Stem Inc reports that his company has processed stem cells from fat samples for approximately 8,000 patients.  Approximately half the patients are horses, the other half comprised of dogs and a few cats.  In the same article, Dr. Sean Owens, director of the Regenerative medicine Laboratory at the University of California- Davis School of Veterinary Medicine states, “We’ve moved forward so quickly that what we need to do now is put the science underneath.”

Dr. Brennan A. McKenzie is the president-elect of the Evidence-Based Veterinary Medicine Association. As stated in the same JAVMA article, “Dr. McKenzie thinks the use of stem cells is a promising avenue for therapy but that the evidence of efficacy and safety is inadequate to justify the expensive treatment in most cases.  He would prefer for clinics to offer stem cells as a truly experimental treatment in formal clinical trials.”

The North American Veterinary Regenerative Medicine Association has recently been organized with hopes of acting as a clearinghouse of information on the use of stem cells in veterinary medicine.  Their first official meeting will be in June with the intention of forming standing committees to address things such as clinical trials and regulatory affairs.

Given the paucity of research supporting stem cell therapy, is there any downside to opting for this form of therapy for your dog or horse?  While there is always risk associated with general anesthesia (usually required for harvesting fat or bone marrow samples as well as injecting the stem cells into the exactly appropriate spot), thusfar, there have been no reports of adverse effects caused by the stem cells themselves. If my own doggie had significant arthritis pain and nothing else in my medical arsenal (supplements, acupuncture, underwater treadmill therapy, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications) made a difference, might I try stem cell therapy?  You betcha. Is there risk of expenditure of two to three grand without a return on investment?  You betcha.

Has one of your four-legged family members received stem cell therapy?  If so, I welcome your feedback.

Best wishes for good health,             

Nancy Kay, DVM
Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine
Author of  Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life
Recipient, Leo K. Bustad Companion Animal Veterinarian of the Year Award
Recipient, American Animal Hospital Association Animal Welfare and Humane Ethics Award
Recipient, Dog Writers Association of America Award for Best Blog
Recipient, Eukanuba Canine Health Award
Recipient, AKC Club Publication Excellence Award
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Please visit to read excerpts from Speaking for Spot. There you will also find “Advocacy Aids”- helpful health forms you can download and use for your own dog, and a collection of published articles on advocating for your pet’s health. Speaking for Spot is available at, local bookstores, and your favorite online book seller.

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7 Comments on “Stem cells: A beneficial therapy or a waste of money?

  1. I had a horse treated with Stem Cells at U C Davis School of Vet. Medicine for a badly torn suspensory. It is now 18 months from the injury and he is doing great.

  2. I had my dog treated by Vet-Stem, it was nothing short of fantastic. Roxie had really bad hips, she now acts like she is a puppy again. I had it done on her about a year ago and she is still going strong. I was a Vet Tech for about 10 years and the inhouse kit kind of scared me. I know when I worked in the clinic you ended up with pee and poop all over you. I would not want someone that is that dirty mixing up something that was going to be injected into my dog. Seems like it would be easy to get a joint infection from it. I am certainly not a scientist, but I am a firm believer that it works after seeing my dog!

  3. Stem cell therapy, in a slightly different context: . This is a talk that Dr. Estrada gave to the Doberman Pinscher Club of America at the National last fall. The first 19 minutes or so are an overview of dilated cardiomyopathy, after which the stem cell treatment that they are doing is explained… it is very interesting, and worth the investment of time to watch. I know of one dog who has had this treatment, and he is doing spectacularly. As a Doberman person, this is an incredibly exciting development! Hopefully, I will not have another dog diagnosed with DCM… if I do, I would not hesitate to have this procedure done.

  4. I have five dogs, and I generally like and appreciate most pets I run into.

    For that reason, I doubt I would thousands of dollars on “non scienctific” treatment. I would much rather ensure my current pets have a fun life and when the times come for them to go, help other pets, who deserve just as much love as my current pets.

  5. I ended up having stem cell therapy on my dog using the Vet-Stem company. I had a science friend look into the kit that can be used in the clinic. The company has no publications, claims more stem cells than seems reasonable, and there is no way for the vet to evaluate the number of cells being injected (cell count or quality of the cells).

    So far my experience is excellent. I also have cells stored in case they are needed in the future.

  6. Very interesting article, and I suppose if I had the money at the time, I would definitely try this therapy.

  7. Hi Nancy, yes, Jasmine is a stem cell therapy patient. She had bi-lateral ACL tear, and arthritis was found in her knees, shoulders, neck and jaws. She is 7.5 years old now, and looks and acts as we would have hoped for if nothing bad ever happened to her (she had a bunch of other surgeries and medical dramas she’s been through).

    We don’t regret a single penny we spent on her stem cell treatment.

    As a note, we did decide to use physical therapy alone a while back for her muscle injury. I love underwater treadmill; it is of great benefit. By the time we were done fixing her muscle injury using that method though, it didn’t cost any less than what we would have spent if we decided to go with stem cells for that problem also.

    We do use acupuncture for some of her other problems as well, all these things are great, look cheap, but add up over time.

    So I wouldn’t even say that stem cell therapy is substantially more expensive than any other therapy out there. That is my experience anyway.

    As for NSAIDs, the cost also adds up and the risks are there. In fact, NSAIDs almost killed Jasmine when we tried them.

    I also talked to a bunch of people who used stem cell therapy for their dogs, and they are all very happy with the results.

    So stem cell therapy? You betcha!