Lasers Revolutionize Pet Surgery

By Andrew Waters

Putting a pet through surgery can be as hard on the owner as on the animal. Now, the laser technology that has simplified and improved so many medical procedures for people is doing the same for their animal friends.

“We love the laser,” states Thomas Callahan, DVM, who practices in Palm Harbor, Florida. “The recovery time and return to function are greatly improved. To see a declawed cat, or a spayed or neutered pet eat hours after surgery testifies to the humane pain reduction benefits of laser.”

Darrell R. Berry, DVM, a veterinarian in Pleasant Grove, Utah, agrees that laser surgery has significantly improved the treatment he is able to offer to animals. “The laser has been wonderful. I’m confident that lasers will soon be the standard of care,” Berry says.

If you haven’t heard about laser surgery, prepare to be amazed. Lasers can be used to erase, or “ablate,” tissue, ranging from the aggressive vaporization of entire tumors to the delicate, precise removal of skin layers as thin as 0.1 millimeters. During surgery, laser energy actually seals small blood vessels as it cuts. This sealing action helps pets recover more quickly and provides a clear, dry surgical field for the surgeon, allowing the surgeon to perform procedures more effectively in less time. Shorter procedures shorten anesthesia time, reducing the risks of anesthesia. Laser energy automatically seals nerve endings. Without a “raw” severed nerve end, the patient feels less pain after surgery. A third sealing action provided by laser energy is to the lymphatic vessels, resulting in less tissue trauma and post-operative swelling.

That all translates to more effective surgery, less pain and a faster recovery time. When pets recover quickly, they get to go home faster, making owners and veterinarians happy.

Among small animal veterinarians, lasers are used for everything from neuters and spays to ocular and dental procedures to treating “hot spots.” Lasers have been used on virtually every kind of animal, including dogs, cats, birds, horses, ferrets, rabbits, iguanas, chinchillas, guinea pigs and monkeys. One of the fastest-growing application areas is cat declawing, a procedure that typically requires anesthesia, a guillotine-type trimmer or scalpel, extensive bandaging and up to three days’ recovery in the animal hospital. “The laser has revolutionized doing declaws,” says Peter Eeg, a veterinarian in Maryland and proponent of laser surgery. During declawing the light beam seals the nerve endings and kills bacteria in the procedure area, reducing pain and the chance of post-operative infection. “No tourniquets are required, and we can send the cats home the same day,” Eeg continues.

Another area where the laser has proved particularly effective is in cancer-related surgeries and the removal of other harmful masses. Veterinarians are able to dissect out malignant masses more precisely, reducing the risk of the cancer’s return.

Lasers can be used in minor procedures, too. A rapidly expanding use of the technology is in the removal of unsightly warts and cysts. Many owners were previously reluctant to subject their pets to the trauma of surgery, even for these minor procedures. Now they can be performed quickly and easily, with very little pain.

Explaining what the laser can do is somewhat easier than explaining how it does it. In simple terms, a laser is a device that generates an intense beam of light at a specific wavelength. The way a laser works is determined by the particular wavelength of light the laser produces. For example, the carbon dioxide laser – the most commonly used surgical laser in the world – produces an invisible infrared beam of light. The wavelength of the carbon dioxide laser beam is selectively absorbed into the water found in skin and other soft tissue, vaporizing the cells. However, the surgeon can control the extent to which the wavelength is absorbed into surrounding tissue, allowing extreme surgical precision. Lasers with different wavelengths are used for different surgical procedures, such as incisions and coagulation.

Laser technology has been used in medical procedures on humans for more than 20 years, but up until four years ago, the use of lasers in small animal veterinary practices was practically unthinkable – the technology was considered too advanced and expensive for community veterinarians.

What’s made the use of lasers possible on a wide scale in veterinary surgery is the development of compact, affordable versions of the carbon dioxide laser and its equally popular counterpart, the diode laser. The carbon dioxide laser is the more powerful of the two, used primarily in procedures involving the cutting or vaporization of tissue. Diode lasers are delivered through a flexible fiber and used primarily in endoscopic procedures that take place within the body’s internal cavities – the type of surgery you may have seen on television, in which the doctor operates by watching a video screen. Today, small, portable systems – some of which are no larger than a briefcase – for both types of lasers can be purchased for prices ranging from $25,000 to $44,000.

Although this price tag is considered a bargain compared to the prices of five years ago, laser systems obviously don’t come cheap. As you might suspect, veterinarians must pass the cost of these systems on to their customers. Procedures using lasers typically result in a $25-$250 markup to the pet owners, depending on the treatment and practice location.

Despite the significant costs, laser manufacturers are confident the use of lasers in small animal veterinary surgery will continue to grow. “We are seeing growth in this market, and while it is not profitable yet, we see that changing over the next two or three years,” says Daniel Fields, director of the veterinary group at ESC Medical Systems Ltd., a company that is aggressively attempting to develop the market for lasers among small animal veterinarians. “No one ever thought there was a market there because no one thought vets would pay for this technology. . . . But we have been quite surprised – 80 percent of our sales so far are to small-animal practitioners.”

For now, Fields and his competitors appear to be getting a lot of the best kind of advertising of all – word of mouth. “I believe the laser is a valuable tool in veterinary medicine,” says Michael Bailey, DVM, who practices in Orlando, Florida. Bailey finds that many of the pet owners don’t object to the increased costs associated with laser surgery because the increase in effectiveness of the procedure is so great. “My clients love it. I had to assure one of my clients that I only performed a declaw. She still believes that I not only removed the claws without pain, but that I also did laser surgery on the nose and that’s why the cat’s allergies are gone.”

Blair Bethel, a veterinarian in Columbus, Ohio, is one of the many veterinarians who shares her customer’s amazement at the results achieved in laser surgery. “When we and our clients see how the laser benefits our patients, we don’t know what we would do without it,” says Bethel.

Pet owners can find out more about the use of laser technology by visiting ESC Medical Systems’ Web site at For information about veterinarians in your area who are now performing laser surgery, call (888) 330-5241.

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