CHICAGO—For a good half-hour, Dasty did the slobbery, happy dog thing—chomping on a hard rubber toy, offering it to visitors, chasing it when it was thrown. Hard to believe that just a few months ago, this 5-year-old German shepherd was virtually crippled by severe arthritis in his left rear leg.
"His quality of life was not good," says Dr. Cheryl Adams, a veterinarian at Arboretum View Animal Hospital in Downers Grove, Ill. "The poor guy could barely stand up."
Now he's as good as new, thanks to stem-cell treatment, a relatively new procedure in which Dasty's own fat cells provided the stem cells that were injected into the leg. It got him up and running again. And mobility is a prerequisite for Dasty's job. He's a member of the Chicago Police Department's narcotics unit.
Turns out, his arthritis was caused by Lyme disease.
"We don't know where he contracted it," says Officer Marion Anderson, a 21-year Chicago Police Department veteran who has been Dasty's partner for about four years. "He had been working for a couple of years, and one day I noticed he was getting up a little slow. Then it got slower. And he started limping."
Anderson didn't realize how bad it was until one night when Dasty, lying beside her, went to move and let out a yelp.
"You hear a dog cry out in pain, to hear that in the middle of the night scared the daylights out of me," she says.
Going up and down stairs became a problem, and getting in and out of a car was difficult. That's tough to see in any 3- or 4-year-old dog. But in a service dog . . .
"There was a point at his lowest when we thought he might have to be retired," says Officer Steve Martinez, who handles canine training for the narcotics division of the Chicago Police Department's organized crime division.
Anderson took Dasty to Arboretum View, which provides medical services for the dogs in the Chicago Police Department's canine unit. There his problem was diagnosed.
He received physical therapy, antibiotics and steroids, but the benefits were minor, and the side effects were not insignificant. His weight ballooned, and he developed, shall we say, bad eating habits.
"He started eating the handle off a purse, and he had to get stuff scoped out of his gut," Adams says. "Traditional treatments were just not working for him."
So Adams suggested the stem-cell treatment, which was developed by Vet-Stem, a California company that was founded in 2002 and in 2005 began working with several clinics in treating dogs with osteoarthritis and soft-tissue injuries. About 700 dogs have received the treatment.
In the procedure, a small incision is made in the abdomen—where fat cells are readily available—and some cells are removed (fat cells are used because 1 in 50 of them is a stem cell, the highest concentration in the body). The fat cells are shipped to Vet-Stem and processed. The stem-cell samples are returned—other samples are stored at Vet-Stem in case they're needed later—and administered.
In Dasty's case, it was both intravenously and through injection. That entire process takes just two days. The cost varies between $2,300 and $4,500, depending on the size of the dog and the number of injections needed, says Adams, who has treated between 40 and 50 patients. But the benefits are obvious.
"Stop it early, and they won't be crippled when they're 10," Adams says.
Dasty, who got a discount because he is a service dog, started treatment in March and was back at work within two weeks of that first incision. He had three treatments, and now he goes in periodically for checkups. He's on a low dose of steroids and is back to his original weight of 34 kilograms.
"It's such a heartwarming story," Anderson says, "that we were able to help out one of our service dogs when he does so much for the city."
"Right after one of his treatments, we were searching a cargo van, and he found $40,000," she says. "He's also found 21 kilos of cocaine, and a few months ago he found $173,000 in one search. He's a tremendous worker."