WSU offers host of osteoarthritis treatments for animals

A veterinary student providing laser therapy to a cat.
Fourth-year veterinary student Tatiana Galvins provides laser therapy to Alice. Since early March, Alice has received laser therapy at WSU, mixed with physical exercise once every other week.

Cats and water don’t usually mix. So, when Alice, a 13-year-old osteoarthritic tabby wasn’t accustomed to the underwater treadmill at Washington State University’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital, it wasn’t a surprise.

“As you can imagine the water that comes with the underwater treadmill doesn’t work well for all animals, especially some cats,” said Jessica Bunch, a veterinarian with WSU’s Integrative Veterinary Medicine Service.

When the underwater treadmill was not tolerated, Ricki Olson (19) and her husband, Jesse, quickly made the decision to switch Alice to photobiomodulation, or laser therapy and therapeutic exercises.

Photobiomodulation therapy is a form of light therapy that utilizes various light sources, including lasers, light emitting diodes, and/or broadband light, in the visible and near-infrared electromagnetic spectrum. This therapy results in beneficial outcomes in some patients including pain relief, immunomodulation, and promotion of wound healing and tissue regeneration.

Since early March, Alice has had a regimen of laser treatment and physical exercise regimens once every other week. It’s one step down from the weekly appointments she was previously scheduled for.

“Alice has shown improvements with us and for her owners,” Bunch said. “She is more mobile and able to exercise for longer.”

Alice navigates an obstacle course.
Alice begins her appointments by navigating an obstacle course constructed of plastic pipes and platforms of various heights which are set up and broken down by Bunch and students.

Every patient is different, which is why WSU offers a host of therapeutic possibilities for osteoarthritis, including acupuncture, hydrotherapy, laser therapy, and weight loss and conditioning.

Osteoarthritis is a common source of pain in senior cats and humans. Studies show 60% to 90% of cats, especially over the age of 12, have evidence of this type of arthritis.

When Alice came to WSU in March, she wasn’t able to jump, she struggled to get into her litter box, and up the stairs.

“Her world was limited to the ground,” said Alice’s owner Ricki Olson (’19). “Her quality of life wasn’t what I wanted it to be.”

Since visiting the WSU Veterinary Teaching Hospital, Alice’s quality of life has improved leaps and bounds—literally.

“It’s been significant. She runs down the stairs and jumps onto the windowsill. She jumped on the bed,” said Olson, a WSU graduate with degrees in psychology and human development.

When she was just 11 years old, Olson stumbled upon Alice in a litter of 8-week-old kittens at a ranch near Wenatchee Valley.

“I caught all the kittens and the owners said I could take one home. Alice stuck out because she had a scratch on her nose and she was very sweet, so I picked her,” Olson said. The two have been best friends since.

“I told my grandma that I don’t think I’ve ever loved anything more than that cat,” she said. “She is one of my most consistent supporters in my life.”

Despite her osteoarthritis, Alice isn’t a fan of sitting still or the goggles she must wear during laser therapy, but Bunch said the stimulating low-power laser enhances cell function and relieves the elderly cat’s pain.

Closeup of Alice

Alice begins her appointments by navigating an obstacle course constructed of plastic pipes of various heights which are set up and broken down by Bunch and students.

She has two options when facing the obstacles – climb over or crawl under them. With a low-calorie treat as a motivator, Alice often prefers to go the under route. This is followed by various other obstacles, mattresses, and balance equipment she maneuvers through.

The exercises are low impact, but improve range of motion, mobility, and help Alice maintain strength, Bunch said. Coupled with her exercise, Alice is also on a diet.

“Maintaining a healthy weight and lean body condition is the No. 1 thing people can do to help animals with arthritis,” Bunch said.

Back at home, Alice “seems years younger,” Olson said. “She’s confident in herself and a lot happier.”

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