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Stem Cell Therapy for Cats

Author: Dr. Beth Turner

Published: September 20, 2021

Updated: July 5, 2024

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cat lying on back getting examined by vet

If you have ever watched a sci-fi movie or a movie set in the future, they always seem to depict technology that allows for quick and miraculous fixes for healing wounds or curing illness. That is likely one of the reasons we love those types of movies.

In reality, medicine is not that simple. Veterinarians have to diagnose your cat’s health issues by taking complete medical histories, performing physical examinations, and running tests. Then based on all the information gathered, determine what the best treatment is. Unfortunately, there isn’t usually a one-size-fits-all treatment plan that works for every patient. Additionally, after a period of time, what once worked for a medical condition no longer does. Then what? That is where science and research come into play.

Not that long ago, stem cell therapy seemed like it was from a sci-fi movie. But stem cell therapy and technology have become a new branch in veterinary medicine. The use of stem cells in regenerative medicine is proving to be highly beneficial to our cats.

The purpose of regenerative medicine is to help the body through the support of advanced medical treatments to repair, replace, or regenerate injured, damaged, or diseased tissues. Currently, stem cells are used in regenerative medicine to help treat bone injuries, joint issues such as osteoarthritis, ligament issues like cranial cruciate ligament (CCL) tears, and inflammatory diseases of cats such as chronic, non-responsive gingivostomatitis (oral mucosal inflammatory disease).

As research continues, advances will be made using stem cells to treat and hopefully cure a vast number of other illnesses and diseases for our cats that were previously not thought to be curable.

What are Stem Cells?

What exactly are stem cells? Stem cells are unspecialized cells, meaning they do not have tissue-specific structures to perform specialized functions. Specialized cells, such as red blood cells that carry oxygen, have specific capabilities that allow them to perform specific tasks.

Stem cells can restore themselves via cell division for long periods of time. Typically, after a certain period of time, most cells cannot replicate themselves. But stem cells are self-sustaining (able to maintain themselves). Their period of replication is much longer than that of other cells.

Lastly, these amazing cells can go through the process of differentiation. This means they can take on individual characteristics and mature into cells with specialized form and function, such as osteoblasts to aid in bone formation or pancreatic beta cells to help treat diabetic cats and more. In certain conditions, they can become specific tissues or organs. The benefit to this is that they can help internally by repairing and replacing damaged, diseased, or dead tissues such as muscle, nerves, skin, and more.

What Benefits Do Stem Cells Provide?

  • They are anti-inflammatory
  • They promote vascular health by improving blood flow by the growth of blood vessels
  • They can potentially stabilize, renew or restore damaged tissue
  • They can act as a base for healing tissue

Where Do Stem Cells Come From?

There are three different types of stem cells:

  1. Embryonic: Derived from embryos
  2. Hemopoietic: Derived from umbilical cords in babies or bone marrow of adults
  3. Mesenchymal: Harvested from umbilical and placental tissue (newborns), bone marrow, and fat tissues (adults). These last two mesenchymal forms are used in veterinary medicine.

Stem cells are safely harvested from your adult cat’s adipose (fat) tissue or other tissue (bone marrow). A small piece of fat tissue is surgically removed either from the groin or shoulder area while your cat is under anesthesia.

Stem cells can also be harvested using the fat of healthy donor cats. This is a typical source at veterinary teaching hospitals.

Another method for obtaining stem cells is that they can be taken from and stored for later use from the reproductive organ tissue that is discarded following your cat’s spay or neuter. Cats of any age can have their stem cells harvested during spay or neuter. For any kittens that suffered with calicivirus, this is a good option since many of those kittens often suffer from chronic, non-responsive gingivostomatitis (oral mucosal inflammatory disease) as adults. Planning ahead can benefit you both.

stem cell cryostorage

How Are Stem Cells Stored for Future Use?

After the tissue sample has been collected, it is then processed via centrifugation to separate and concentrate the stem cells.

If stem cells are to be used at a later date, they can be preserved and stored. When your cat needs treatment, your veterinarian can order cell culturing so your pet will have a lifetime of stem cells for therapy. Stem cells can also be sent back to your veterinarian for treatment of acute issues while still having some preserved and stored for later treatments.

It is important to know that not all veterinary clinics have stem cell therapy programs (sample collection, processing, and usage). Those that do must first become certified through a training program. Many Veterinary Teaching Hospitals, such as UC Davis or Colorado State, have stem cell therapy programs and have clinical trials at different times.

However, any veterinarian you trust is able to perform the injections where stem cells are needed for treatment.

Companies That Store Your Cat's Stem Cells

Gallant is one company that offers stem cell processing and preservation for dogs, cats, and horses. They store stem cells collected from your cat's spay or neuter procedure, as well as stem cells collected from fat tissue in cats who were already fixed. Gallant offers pricing based on monthly, yearly, or lifetime plans.

Another company is VetStem Biopharma. VetStem also offers stem cell culturing through their StemInsure® service, which allows them to replenish your pet's stored stem cells for continued supply. There are different payment plans and fees.

Harvesting stem cells during spay and neuter would save you the cost of a collection surgery later on, as well as not having to put your cat under anesthesia just for harvesting stem cells. However, paying for storage long-term may end up costing the same or more in the long run. For this reason, if you are considering having your cat's stem cells collected during spay and neuter, familiarize yourself with the costs of storage to choose the plan you're most comfortable with.

What Does Stem Cell Therapy for Cats Include?

Once the lab where your cat's stem cells are stored has been contacted by your veterinarian, the sample is processed (additionally processing is needed on stem cells that have been stored) and received for treatment within 48 to 72 hours. Since the viability of the cells is decreased due to time and/or temperature, no delays in treatment can be made once the sample is processed for injection.

After the stem cells are received, they are injected into the area to be treated by your veterinarian. This often requires some type of anesthesia. Your cat's body then stimulates them to grow into a significant number of different cell types. They can be injected into joints, ligaments, muscle, nerve, bone, etc. There, they can grow and replace the damaged tissue with healthy new tissue.

Normally, stem cell treatments are done as an outpatient procedure and only rest plus mild supportive care is needed post-treatment.

Improvements are typically noted 1 to 2 weeks, potentially up to a month, following treatment. A follow-up treatment is done anywhere between 6 and 18 months when the prior treatment's effects have worn off. This is one important reason to have extra stem cells preserved and stored so that your cat doesn’t have to have another surgery to remove additional tissue for processing again. There are a few fortunate pets that may never need repeat treatments.

The great news is that a lifetime of stem cell therapy can be provided from one sample collection when you utilize storage and/or cell culturing.

cat looking over shoulder of veterinarian

Does Pet Insurance Cover Stem Cell Therapy for Cats?

The cost of stem cell therapy for pets can cost between $2000 and $4000 but can be higher. The good news is some pet insurance companies will cover stem cell therapy. However, they usually do not cover the cost of collection, storage, or culturing of stem cells.

Trupanion and Nationwide cover stem cell therapy if it is prescribed by a veterinarian. Embrace Pet Insurance covers stem cell therapy for certain conditions. As of August 2021, Healthy Paws Pet Insurance does not cover stem cell therapy as it's still considered non-traditional. Check your policy to determine whether you would need to pay out-of-pocket for stem cell therapy or if it's covered by your pet insurance.

Is Stem Cell Therapy for Cats Experimental?

Based on the fact that the treatment has not yet been fully utilized by the vast majority of the veterinary community, insurance companies may refer to it as "experimental." But as time goes on and more veterinary hospitals gain access to the technology, that terminology will change. The vast majority of the veterinary community has come to view it as dependable and beneficial.

Stem Cell Therapy Benefits and Risks

Currently, the most common use for stem cell therapy is for the treatment of osteoarthritis in dogs, cats, and horses. The hope for the future, as research is continued, is that stem cell therapy can be used for spinal cord injuries (such as IVDD or paralysis), treating liver, and certain heart diseases as well as many other diseases and illnesses.

For cats, stem cell therapy is providing much hope for the stabilization and treatment of chronic kidney disease and other inflammatory diseases of the skin and gut.

As far as using stem cell therapy for the treatment of cancer, it isn’t considered appropriate. There are risks of causing it to worsen or spread more rapidly.

The beauty of stem cell therapy is that doctors are not using synthetic cells or artificial replacements. Rather, they are using real tissue to replace damaged or injured tissue in these amazing living creatures to allow natural healing. By using their own tissue, there is less chance of rejection or adverse reactions. Additionally, there are potentially fewer side effects than other more traditional treatment options.

As with any procedure, there are risks. There are risks associated with the surgical procedure to harvest stem cells, just as with any medical or surgical procedure. There is also a risk of infection and inflammation at the injection site during treatment. Stem cell therapy does not impose any greater risk of infection or inflammation at the site than other medication injections or vaccines, etc.

Since the early 1990s, stem cell therapy has been gaining ground in veterinary medicine. Veterinary Teaching Hospitals are performing clinical trials to help advance the usage of stem cells in the treatment of different illnesses.

As research on stem cells and their use continue, new information will become available that will provide our cats with better treatment options and, in turn, extend their lives. Learning about this innovative advancement in science is beneficial to you and your pet. If you're wondering about whether harvesting your cat's stem cells is a good idea or if stem cell therapy would benefit your cat's medical treatment, connect with your veterinarian.

About the author

Profile picture for Dr. Beth Turner

Dr. Beth Turner

Beth Turner is a veterinarian with over 20 years of experience. She graduated from North Carolina State College of Veterinary Medicine and following graduation, she began her career as an associate veterinarian and worked closely with the local shelter.

In 2007 she accomplished her dream of practice ownership, designing and building her own clinic. Another meaningful role, while running her clinic, was serving as her county's shelter veterinarian. This gave her the opportunity to help improve the lives of many animals in her community as well as work with the rescue she loved. She sold her practice in 2019 to move across the country.