Veterinarians in New Orleans are using two high-tech, noninvasive, drug-free therapies to relieve pets' pain from arthritis, injuries and surgeries while also amping up their bodies' natural healing processes.

Laser therapy uses light energy to penetrate deep into the tissues and joints of a cat or dog to reduce inflammation and increase blood flow. Shock wave therapy uses an electrohydraulic shock to stimulate blood vessels and circulation, cell growth, bone healing and lymphatics in dogs.

Becki Francis, a laser therapy technician at Metairie Small Animal Hospital (101 Metairie Road, Metairie, 504-835-4266; www.msah.com) frequently uses laser therapy not only for pets with arthritis and mobility problems, but also to kick-start healing processes for animals who have suffered snake bites, have open wounds, have been hit by a car or are recovering from surgery.

The therapy is simple. A technician uses an instrumet that resembles an ultrasound wand with a ball on the end of it. A dog or cat is brought into a therapy room and "doggles," tinted sunglasses, are put on them. The animal lays on a bed with the owner present, and light from the wand penetrates  through the coat, skin and muscles all the way to the bone or joint. The animals don't have to be shaved beforehand, and therapy sessions last a maximum of 30 minutes.

"It's a treatment that helps the body heal itself," Francis says. "It uses light energy that penetrates deep down into the tissues, and it helps to reduce inflammation and increase blood flow.

"There are receptors in our cells that are activated by the light (energy). It's kind of how plants go through photosynthesis — they receive sunlight and that process causes the tissues to make more energy. It's using the light energy to stimulate the tissues to heal themselves."

Inflammation is a major cause of pain and can make it hard for pets to move easily. Francis says laser therapy has a cumulative effect in which full results can be achieved in six sessions, though not all animals experience the same results.

"We're definitely seeing improvements by three to four sessions and by six sessions — that is our pinnacle, or the best we can expect for them," Francis says. After that, the pets are scheduled for maintenance treatments once a week, every two weeks or once a month, depending on their needs. "We've had dogs that have been 17, 18, 20 years old that are still receiving the therapy and it really improved their quality of life," she says. "Those guys will come in more than once a month, because the disease process is pretty advanced, and it really helps to improve their comfort level and mobility."

In addition to arthritis and joint problems, Francis uses laser therapy on animals being treated with pain or infection medications where swelling deters the effectiveness of those treatments, or the animals are on the maximum dosage recommended and still suffer symptoms.

"A lot of the dogs when they first come to see me … have already been on medications but they're not quite seeing the results the owners would like to see for them," she says. "The laser therapy itself does not have any interaction with the medications, so we can use it no matter what the pet is on."

An animal with a chronic ear infection, for instance, may have so much swelling in the ear canal that the ear can't be cleaned and the topical medication can't reach the affected spot. Reducing the inflammation allows those actions.

"Another really neat thing about the laser therapy is that it's comfortable," Francis says. "It doesn't hurt them … and in fact it feels pretty soothing to a lot of them. As the laser light travels through the hand piece it warms up this glass ball on the end of it, so it's like they're getting a warm massage. Of course, if they just had surgery or if they have an open wound, we wouldn't physically touch them with the wand because we don't want to spread infection."

In addition to reducing inflammation, improving circulation and stimulating cell growth, the therapy releases endorphins, which are produced by the pituitary gland and can make animals (and humans) feel better and experience a sense of euphoria. The treatment also promotes lymphatic drainage, which is how the body rids itself of toxins.

"It helps to speed up what the body normally would do," says Francis, adding that it works the same on cats as on dogs.

"I just don't have as many feline patients as canine patients," Francis says. "I think the reason is that by their nature, cats are better at disguising when they are in pain, so you don't realize they are suffering from arthritis or having trouble getting around until they start doing things like maybe urinating outside the litter box or becoming more aggressive or not eating."

Spark gap electrohydraulic shock wave therapy works differently but can be used for some of the same conditions — but on dogs only, says Dr. John Mauterer, a veterinarian at Veterinary Specialists of Greater New Orleans (1937 Veterans Memorial Blvd., Metairie, 504-510-3300; www.gnovetspecialists.com), which also offers laser therapy.

Application involves using a fluid-filled plastic probe or wand. The handle triggers a spark that produces an energy wave that moves through the water and out of the wand to stimulate blood vessels, the lymphatic system, bone healing and remodeling, cell growth and circulation.

"It seems to dull nerve endings for a while, too," Mauterer says. "We get pain relief from it pretty quickly."

Dogs normally only need one or two treatments and the results can last six months to a year before they need to be repeated.

"The down side," he says, "is the dog has to be knocked out because (the treatment) doesn't feel good. But since it's so quick, it can be just enough (anesthesia) to knock them out for five minutes." The dog also must be shaved if it has a long coat because a conductive gel must be applied to the skin.

"It's not a miracle cure," he says, "but I've seen it do some remarkable things for some dogs," especially those with arthritis or elbow, shoulder, spinal and lumbosacral pain, as well as agility issues.

Mauterer says shock wave is a therapy option that competes with results from laser therapy and acupuncture. "Some dogs it works on and some it doesn't," he says. "The benefits, as opposed to the laser, is it only needs one or two treatments. It's a little more expensive than laser therapy, but less than acupuncture."

The therapy isn't new. It's been used to treat pain, osteoarthritis, hip and elbow dysplasia, tendon and ligament injuries and more in horses since 1999. Because it involves electrodes that fire very high and very fast charges, it cannot be used in an area with an organ, since it would shatter it, he says.

Veterinary Specialists of Greater New Orleans is one of only two area vets who offer the treatment, Mauterer says. The other is Natural Pet Care in Metairie.