As the relationship between pets and their people continues to grow and the status of pets in our lives becomes even more important, human medical techniques are being adapted for use in our furry companions. One of these techniques is hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) which has often been used to treat scuba divers suffering from "the bends". It was recently used in Seattle to treat a turtle that had buoyancy problems.
HBOT involves putting a patient into a chamber that is pressurized to three times normal atmospheric pressure where they are exposed to 100% oxygen. Just for comparison, the air we breathe has only 21% oxygen. When the patient is in the chamber, oxygen spreads through the body at a greater rate, due to both the increased pressure and oxygen concentration. It's particularly useful in treating areas with poor blood flow because under these conditions, blood plasma can transport the oxygen even if circulation to the area isn't good. This means that tissues that would normally die through lack of oxygen can survive. Treatment periods can range from a few minutes to two hours.
For pets, HBOT has been involved in treating those with swelling, trauma, or a non-healing wound. It is also used to manage conditions where oxygen has been restricted such as smoke inhalation and near drowning. Studies are continuing into the benefits of this type of therapy; one of the most exciting ones has been a 2014 study that showed that HBOT actually increases the number of stem cells produced in the blood of patients.
There is increasing interest in the use of HBOT and it is thought that hyperbaric chambers will soon be available in many veterinary practices. Just last month, a German Shepherd was treated with HBOT after inhaling carbon monoxide in a house fire. Some pet insurance policies are starting to cover this type of treatment.
Just as with any therapy, there are some disadvantages to the use of HBOT. Sudden pressure changes can in fact cause tissue damage, known as barotrauma. This usually affects tissues that are around pockets of air such as the lungs and sinuses. Breathing 100% oxygen can lead to oxygen toxicity, which is characterized by neurological symptoms including dizziness, convulsions, and blurred vision. Prolonged exposure to high oxygen levels can damage the retina in the eye, which causes blindness.
There are also safety issues with the use of these chambers. In 2015, a veterinarian in Georgia placed a battery-operated fan inside a hyperbaric chamber while treating a dog and the fan is thought to have ignited the oxygen, resulting in an explosion. The outcome wasn't good for the dog being treated. However, in this case, the chamber itself was very old and hadn't been well maintained.
Veterinary medicine is advancing quickly, as human treatments are starting to be used in pets with good results. In spite of the downsides associated with hyperbaric therapy, it is likely to make a big difference in the health of many of our pets in the not-too-distant future.