Stem cell therapy transforms San Leandro dog's life
By Karen Holzmeister
The Daily Review
Posted: 04/27/2009 12:00:00 AM PDT
Updated: 04/27/2009 02:52:24 PM PDT

SAN LEANDRO Shadow, a handsome black-and-tan German shepherd, loves to take daily five- to seven-mile walks in the San Leandro hills with his human, Don Sirca.

The 2 and 1/2-year-old dog chases balls, eagerly laps up his daily meals, and can use both front paws to shake hands with visitors to his Fairmont Terrace home.

A year ago, however, the 78-pound dog was severely limping on his left front leg. Shadow cried out in pain, said Dolores Sirca, Don's wife. The couple had to spoon-feed their beloved pet, who was losing weight.

Shadow's problem? Osteoarthritis, and a congenital condition of loose bone and cartilage in his left shoulder.

What has turned Shadow's life around?

Therapeutic stem cells, harvested from fat in Shadow's abdomen and then processed for injection into the left shoulder in June.

Recently, Shadow began to show signs of discomfort on the right front leg, and Berkeley veterinarian Kimberly Carlson diagnosed him with the same condition.

On Tuesday, Shadow had surgery on his right shoulder, and Dr. Carlson also injected that area with the dog's fat-derived stem cells.

"Shadow's prognosis is excellent," said Carlson, who has been treating dogs with this form of regenerative medicine since October 2007. "He returned to 100 percent full normal function on the left front leg, with no signs of any lameness or discomfort. We hope for another great recovery (on the right front leg)."

The stem-cell therapy was developed by Vet-Stem Co. of San Diego. It uses a concentrated form of the animal's own stem cells to treat traumatic and degenerative diseases including tendons or ligament injuries in dogs and cats, as well as larger animals such as horses, and to stimulate regeneration in connective bone, tissue and cartilage.

In the surgery at Berkeley's Dog and Cat Hospital, Carlson anesthetized Shadow and removed about two tablespoons of fat from his abdomen, she explained. The fat was overnighted to Vet-Stem, which harvested the stem and regenerative cells from the fat, and shipped the cells in a syringe back to Carlson for injection back into Shadow.

Carlson said she has given this form of stem cell therapy to more than 50 dogs, with all having a positive response.

The treatment has been costly, the Sircas acknowledged. They've spent about $6,000 for tests and treatments at Shadow's regular veterinarian in San Leandro, as well as at the Berkeley Dog and Cat Hospital.

"We didn't think twice" about Shadow's treatment, Don Sirca said. In the past, the couple also paid for a kidney transplant for a cat, which has since died.

Dolores Circa was recuperating from breast cancer surgery about the time of Shadow's first stem cell therapy.

"He is so intelligent," she recalled. "He sat next to me, just so caring, almost as if he understood what I was going through."

Reach Karen Holzmeister at 510-293-2478 or

from the berner-l

My Berner had stem cells injected to help with his arthritis at age 7. He has elbow displasia and marginal hips. The hips got worse as a result of him shifting weight from his elbows. So he had both hips replaced and then had radial lengthening surgery on his right elbow. Surgeries were done in 2004, 2005 and 2006. He is the poster dog for bad joints and had already shown significant arthritis at age 4.

The first stem cell injections in 2007 were done two days after his elbows had been arthroscoped for the second time. The fat cells were harvested at the same time as the scoping, sent to Vet-Stem in California, and returned two days later for injection directly into his elbows. A year later one of the vials that had been harvested and frozen, was thawed and injected via IV so that the cells could go throughout his body. And a year later, we thawed three vials. Two were injected directly into his elbows and the third was again done via IV at the same time.

I don't recommend injecting stem cells immediately following any surgical procedure. My stem cell vet says that it appears that when it is done immediately following a surgery, the cells go to work repairing the surgical site and not to the cartilage needed for helping the arthritis. That makes sense to me and would explain why we got some results, but not anything dramatic the first time. The second IV only injection did not show results either. But the third time (direct to the elbows and also IV) had better results. He showed much better range of motion and easier movement. He is still getting around pretty well a year after his last stem cell injections, but he also gets acupuncture, Hyaluranic acid, Adequan injections, chiropractic, Cosequin DS, and Rimadyl. He routinely works out on an underwater treadmill. How much of his current condition is due to stem cells is any body's guess. I think it is a combination of factors and I will keep doing all of these therapies as long as he is showing some benefit and I can afford it.

Stem cells will not cure arthritis, although it can certainly help build the cartilage and ease the arthritis. At this point I am not even sure how long the stem cell results will last. I know of some dogs who showed great results and others who have shown lesser results. I suspect a lot of it has to do with now much cartilage is actually remaining in the joint. It may be that stem cells can't begin to build cartilage if there is little or no cartilage left to begin with. But the treatment did help Quincy get around better and show less pain.

I would recommend consulting with a vet certified to perform the stem cell therapy and ask lots of hard questions about his/her experience and results. It is costly, but worth it if it helps. I wish I could tell you that it positively works on every dog and they all show tremendous improvement. I can't. It is still a new therapy and everyone is still learning. Why some dogs show great improvement and others show only a little is one of the questions with no good answers. Still, if I had it to do over, I would certainly do it again.

Hope this helps. It sounds like your berner may be a good candidate for stem cells. If he hasn't shown significant arthritis until now, he is is much better condition than my berner when we did his stem cells. Please feel free to email me with any questions or follow up.