What the Science Says About Light Therapy for Arthritis in Dogs
They say that a dog is a man’s best friend. And when your best friend gets older and suffers from arthritis, you’ll do anything you can to help relieve their joint pain.
Below, we’ll examine the current evidence about light therapy for arthritis in dogs.
What Is Light Therapy?
Light therapy, also known as low-level laser therapy (LLLT), phototherapy, or photobiomodulation, is a type of medical treatment that uses specific wavelengths of light to produce beneficial responses in the body.
Light therapy for pets is an emerging field still in its early stages of research and product development, but there are some home-use light therapy products available for dogs, cats, and horses. Veterinarians may have light therapy devices available in their offices as well.
Most creatures require light exposure to function well. The mitochondria inside living cells absorb particles of light and use them to produce adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the cell’s energy. Increased levels of ATP help cells function more efficiently.
Although different wavelengths of light therapy offer different health benefits, red light therapy is perhaps best known for its ability to decrease inflammation, promote blood flow, and increase tissue healing in the body — all important goals in the treatment of arthritis.
What Is Arthritis in Dogs?
Osteoarthritis, or degenerative joint disease, is a painful condition that commonly affects dogs’ hips, elbows, knees, wrists, and backs. Dogs develop osteoarthritis when the cartilage in their joints begins to deteriorate, leading to inflammation, decreased range of motion, and bone spurs.
According to Canine Arthritis Resources and Education (CARE), 20% of dogs over the age of one suffer from arthritis, a number that increases to 80% in older dogs.
Symptoms of Arthritis in Dogs
Signs of arthritis in dogs vary depending on the affected joints. Possible symptoms include:
- Muscles in the rear legs shrinking.
- Difficulty standing up after lying down.
- Difficulty traveling up or down stairs.
- Reluctance to jump onto a sofa or elevated surface.
- Standing with the rear legs positioned close together.
- Lameness in one leg.
- Stiff joints.
- Weight gain.
- Lethargy or irritability.
These are not the only symptoms that can indicate arthritis in dogs. Watch for any changes in typical behavior, including difficulty getting into position for urinating or defecating, that might indicate your dog is in pain.
Diagnosis of Arthritis in Dogs
If you suspect your dog has arthritis, the best next step is to take your pet to the veterinarian. They will be able to rule out other illnesses that cause similar symptoms and provide a definitive diagnosis.
To diagnose arthritis in your dog, your veterinarian will ask about your dog’s history and behavior. They’ll perform a physical examination, checking the joints and range of motion. They may also order X-rays and blood work to determine the extent of the arthritis and check for other conditions.
Risk Factors for Arthritis in Dogs
While osteoarthritis is a common disease in dogs, several factors can contribute to its development, including:
- Improper feeding or nutrition.
- Repeated stress on the joints from athletic activities.
- Old injuries.
- Hip or elbow dysplasia.
- Joint infections.
- Metabolic diseases, such as diabetes.
- Age, especially over 8 years old.
- Large or giant breed.
Large and giant breeds of canine are more susceptible to arthritis, though any dog can develop the condition. German shepherds, Great Danes, Labrador retrievers, Saint Bernards, mastiffs, and golden retrievers are all at higher risk.
Some smaller breeds pass on heritable conditions that make them more prone to arthritis. These breeds include Chihuahuas, Yorkshire terriers, and bulldogs.
Can Light Therapy Help Arthritis in Dogs?
Though light therapy for pets is a relatively new field of study, scientists have conducted more research using light therapy in dogs than in any other type of household pet. And, as it happens, osteoarthritis is one of the most well-researched veterinary conditions.
After early studies in rats proved promising, scientists moved on to researching light therapy for arthritis in dogs. In 2018, for example, a group of researchers studied the effectiveness of low-level laser therapy (LLLT) in 20 canines with elbow arthritis.
The study assessed each dog’s pain score, lameness score, and pain medication dosage before treatment. Then the dogs received either near-infrared (NIR) light therapy or a sham treatment for six weeks. Pain score, lameness score, and pain medication requirements were all reassessed 7–10 days after the final treatment.
The treatment group showed significant improvement in all three areas. In fact, owners were able to reduce pain medication for 9 of 11 dogs by at least 50% following treatment. None of the dogs who received the sham treatment showed any improvement in symptoms.
In 2020, a similar study investigated 17 dogs diagnosed with osteoarthritis. Researchers administered (LLLT) to each dog once weekly for six weeks. Each dog was assessed for pain symptoms before, throughout, and after the process.
After only one LLLT session, the dogs experienced significantly reduced pain levels. These continued to decrease throughout the treatment time. Based on their reduced pain and improved function, thirteen of the dogs had their pain medication dosages lowered two weeks after starting treatment, with six stopping medication altogether. No side effects were observed.
Researchers noted that, aside from the reduction in pain medication, “the most relevant finding of this study was that laser therapy was effective in improving the dogs’ quality of life as perceived by their owners.”
Although these studies are relatively small, they provide extremely encouraging results.
Light Therapy Is Generally Safe and Effective for Dogs
While it’s best not to start a new treatment without speaking with your veterinarian, light therapy is generally safe and effective for dogs. It’s widely used in veterinary offices now, and canine arthritis is one of the most common conditions that it successfully treats.
It’s likely that light therapy for arthritis in dogs will become a more mainstream treatment as the pace of research increases and the results become more widely accepted. While you shouldn’t expect miracles, the lack of side effects from light therapy for arthritis in dogs makes it a great first-line treatment option to try.