Laser therapy makes dogs look cool, feel even better

With their dark, tinted goggles and laid-back demeanor, the pups at Canine Rehab look like the coolest dogs in town. But they're not doing it for sheer style. They're undergoing a cutting-edge rehabilitation technique called laser therapy.

"Laser therapy is a wonderful modality that we have to help with pain and help with healing," says Dr. Bonnie Brown, VMD, CCRP, who founded Canine Rehab of New York. "It brings blood vessels into the area. It increases the oxygen to the wounded area, the energy to the area. And so, dogs that have laser therapy are much less painful. It allows us to get them moving better. It allows us to get them off of some of the pain medications that they're on."

So, all day long, canine patients file in: a schnauzer with a neurological disorder, a lab who's just had surgery on a dislocated kneecap, a French bulldog with a central nervous system issue. Their ailments are as varied as their breeds, but they all know the drill. 

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A senior schnauzer with a neurological disorder gets laser therapy at Canine Rehab of New York.

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One by one, the dogs undergo hydrotherapy on the underwater treadmill. They navigate a colorful obstacle course of cones and balancing mechanisms for their strength and range of motion. Then, they settle down on a soft pad with a veterinary technician for their laser treatment.

"We call it a spa treatment," explains Dr. Leilani Alvarez, DVM, DACVSMR, of New York City's Animal Medical Center, which also offers laser therapy. "A lot of people have a misconception that rehabilitation is this big workout, but for the most part, it's really a means of healing. It's a means for the patients to feel better during their therapy. So, we spend about a half an hour on that spa treatment, where they get a full-body massage. Then, they get laser therapy."

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Bo, a french bulldog, gets laser therapy from a veterinary technician at Canine Rehab of New York.

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That explains the level of chill that inhabits the dogs' bodies during their treatment. In fact, some lie so still that you might assume they're sedated. On the contrary, however, experts say the treatment simply feels wonderful.

"It feels good when you get lasered," Brown tells CBS News. "We've lasered ourselves sometimes to see what it's like. Or if we have injuries, we'll laser ourselves. It feels wonderful."

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A small dog undergoing laser therapy.

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The treatment is noninvasive, so animals who can't withstand surgery can experience much-needed pain relief through the laser instead. It's a sort of invisible science operating through beams of light.

"It works at a very molecular level, so at the level of the cells," explains Alvarez. "When you shine this light in through the tissues, it actually helps to improve cellular respiration. And when you stimulate it with this light, it helps to produce more ATP, which is the energy that cells need in order to heal. It also releases chemicals in the body that are a source of natural pain relief, and it helps to reduce inflammation."

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Mia, a yellow lab, undergoes laser therapy at Canine Rehab of New York.

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That's an awful lot of positives, right? The only negative seems to be that the laser beams used in the treatment can damage the eyes — that is, if you're not wearing protective goggles. Thus, the canine patients end up making an inadvertent fashion statement that owners adore.

"Owners love laser therapy because their pets have to wear goggles when they come in for the type of laser that we use," says Brown, smiling. "It's called a Class 4 laser. And so they love to come take a picture of their dog with goggles because they look like they're getting on a motorcycle."

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Bo, a french bulldog, cannot undergo surgery because of a central nervous system issue in his brain. So, he benefits from laser therapy instead.

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The treatment benefits a whole lot more than dogs' street cred, though. Vets say it can treat joint and back pain. It can reduce inflammation and help heal incisions after surgery. It can bring blood flow back to an area and remove metabolic waste. It can reduce pain due to arthritis and soft tissue injuries, allowing dogs to participate in other helpful physical therapy exercises that might otherwise have been too painful. And it can work wonders on chronic or non-healing wounds.

"For problems in the spine or a joint, we're going to do multiple different types of rehab," explains Brown. "For wounds, like cuts and things like that, sometimes the laser is all we need to use. Dogs may have gotten bitten or they may have gotten a laceration. They've cut their foot. And the amount of healing — how quickly the laser heals without having to do anesthesia and surgery is incredible."