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Photobiomodulation for Dogs and Cats: A Conversation With Dr. Ronald Hirschberg

The Glowbie team was privileged to speak with Dr. Ronald Hirschberg, DVM, a veterinarian with over 30 years' experience at Brockton Animal Hospital in Brockton, Massachusetts, and a member of Glowbie's clinical advisory team.

Dr. Hirschberg was trained in western veterinary medicine at Ohio State University. But despite his classic training, Dr. Hirschberg has never hesitated to pursue treatment modalities outside the mainstream, provided they have a thorough scientific basis and a considerable body of evidence demonstrating efficacy.

It's this integrative approach to veterinary medicine that led Dr. Hirschberg to the field of photobiomodulation (PBM). Today, he routinely speaks at photobiomodulation conferences, sits on the board of the North American Association for Photobiomodulation Therapy (NAALT), and is considered a leader in the field.

You can watch the full interview with Dr. Hirschberg or read a detailed summary below.

Dr. Hirschberg's Introduction to Light Therapy

Though his current expertise in photobiomodulation is for animals, Dr. Hirschberg's initial experience with light therapy was for himself.

Years ago, Dr. Hirschberg began to develop arthritis in his hands, which caused pain and discomfort to the point of limiting his ability to perform surgeries. In researching traditional arthritis treatments, he found the two main options — surgery and chronic medication — both unappealing. Surgery would likely decrease his hand strength, which concerned him both as a surgeon and an avid rock climber. And medication would need to be taken for the rest of his life, which he wanted to avoid.

Then one day, a client in the veterinary hospital noticed Dr. Hirschberg rubbing his hands and inquired about it. When he heard about the doctor's arthritis diagnosis, the client told Dr. Hirschberg that he had received training in photobiomodulation and was opening a limited practice. He invited the doctor to try a few treatments. Figuring he had nothing to lose, Dr. Hirschberg agreed, despite having low expectations.

After two to three treatments, a surprised Dr. Hirschberg noticed a measure of relief from his pain. He initially attributed this relief to a placebo effect, but continued treatments at his wife's urging.

During this time, Dr. Hirschberg began to study the available science on photobiomodulation and was surprised to find that it was a well-accepted therapy around the world. The United States, where healthcare tends to be much more conservative in the acceptance of new treatment methods, had not yet come around to PBM therapy.

Once he began studying photobiomodulation and saw how much scientific evidence supported it, Dr. Hirschberg began to realize how effective this therapy could be in veterinary medicine. Since that time, Brockton Animal Hospital has purchased PBM equipment and successfully treated thousands of patients for a wide range of health conditions, including:

  • Bone and joint issues
  • Degeneration disc disease
  • Chronic kidney disease
  • Liver disease
  • Dermatologic issues
Proven Benefits Red Light Therapy Dogs Cats

The Science of Light Therapy

How can one therapy possibly treat such a wide variety of health conditions? While Dr. Hirschberg acknowledges this may appear unlikely on the surface, he says that taking a look at the science behind photobiomodulation will help explain its far-ranging efficacy.

Photobiomodulation has had many other names: cold laser therapy, low-level laser therapy (LLLT), light therapy, and red light therapy, to name a few. Breaking down the current term, we can see it consists of:

  • Photo — light.
  • Bio — life, living cells.
  • Modulation — the alteration of processes.

The most basic form of light therapy is something most people learned about in grade school science: photosynthesis. In photosynthesis, plants absorb sunlight to produce a form of energy called adenosine triphosphate (ATP). ATP is the energy that drives all living organisms.

Both animal and human cells can also absorb light to produce ATP. When cells' mitochondria absorb certain wavelengths of light, they use the energy to produce the ATP that keeps the body's processes moving efficiently.

Diseased cells can result from illness, trauma, and other factors that cause oxidative stress and a buildup of free radicals within the cells. These free radicals block the mitochondria's production of ATP, meaning cells no longer have the energy to carry out their vital functions. This leads to inflammation, decreased circulation, pain, discomfort, and loss of use.

Photobiomodulation, however, can aid in the removal of free radicals, allowing cells to renew their production of ATP. Consequently, light therapy improves inflammation, healing, pain, circulation, neurotransmission of serotonin and endorphins, and even the release of stem cells in the body.

Light therapy's fundamental mechanism of action doesn't alter the body's natural processes; it simply helps them work more efficiently.

How Red Light Therapy Works Dogs Cats

Light Therapy Case Studies From Dr. Hirschberg's Practice

Dr. Hirschberg shared several moving stories with us about companion animals he's treated using photobiomodulation with positive results.

Photobiomodulation for Joint Issues

One of Dr. Hirschberg's most memorable patients was an 18-year-old cat named Toonces. He was originally an outdoor cat, but due to joint pain, became unable to even climb up the basement stairs. Prescription pain medications provided some relief, but not as much as the owners hoped.

When Toonces' owners inquired about light therapy, Dr. Hirschberg was initially surprised because most of his success had been in treating dogs up to that point. But he was willing to try.

Within three to four light therapy treatments, Toonces became significantly more active. A few months later, Toonces proudly presented his owner with a mouse that he had caught and brought up from the basement.

Photobiomodulation for Skin Issues and Wound Healing

When discussing soft tissue injury and chronic wounds that have difficulty healing, Dr. Hirschberg spoke of an older Maltese named Dixie.

Dixie had suffered massive burns all over her back from lying on a heating pad without adequate protection. To complicate matters further, Dixie had Cushing's disease, an adrenal disease that significantly slows healing. As a result, Dr. Hirschberg suggested light therapy as a treatment that might help Dixie's situation.

After just two weeks of light therapy, the wounds on Dixie's back had healed remarkably. In fact, they'd reached a level of healing Dr. Hirschberg would normally expect after three to four weeks in a healthy dog. The skin had almost entirely regrown.

Photobiomodulation for Injury Recovery

When a young Italian greyhound named Enzo leapt from a chair and landed awkwardly, his yelp and inability to walk caused his owners to bring him to Dr. Hirschberg. X-rays revealed that Enzo had a distal radius fracture in his front leg, a serious break that's notoriously slow to heal in young dogs due to poor blood supply to the area. Approximately 25–35% of these breaks either heal very slowly or never heal at all.

Dr. Hirschberg recommended that the owners take Enzo to a specialist, but they preferred to keep their beloved companion with Dr. Hirschberg, who they knew and trusted. He performed an initial surgery, piecing the bone back together with the help of a small steel rod. He also insisted that Enzo receive several sessions of light therapy after surgery to encourage healing in the area.

On day 17 after surgery, Enzo managed to leap out of one of his owner's arms. Horrified, she was sure he had reinjured his leg and requested new X-rays.

Dr. Hirschberg hoped simply to see the bone still intact and the steel pin still in place. Instead, he was shocked to see a significant amount of new bone growth. From certain angles, the bone looked almost completely healed, though it would take many weeks to regain full strength. In just 17 days, Enzo reached a level of healing the doctor wouldn't have expected to see for at least two months, if at all.

Red Light Therapy Injury Recovery Dogs Cats

Photobiomodulation for Degenerative Disc Disease

Degenerative disc disease (DDD) is one of Brockton Animal Hospital's favorite applications for light therapy. DDD and herniated discs are very common conditions that are difficult to treat with surgery. Light therapy, however, can have a potent effect through inflammation reduction, decreasing pressure on the nerves.

Several years ago, a long-haired dachshund named Rusty presented with pain in his back. X-rays indicated a collapsed disc that was partially herniated. After just a few treatments with photobiomodulation, Rusty seemed to return to normal.

Dr. Hirschberg advised the owner to continue light therapy treatments, but after Rusty's condition improved, she felt he was going to be fine and stopped the treatments. Three years later, Rusty's pain returned and progressed quickly, rendering him completely unable to use his back legs.

Rusty's owner rushed him to an animal emergency center, but they only offered surgical treatment, with no guarantees. The owner then contacted Dr. Hirschberg's office.

Even though Rusty's backside was almost completely paralyzed, there was still some evidence of nerve response. Warning her not to expect miracles, Dr. Hirschberg began to treat Rusty with photobiomodulation. For the first two weeks, little changed. However, after three weeks and the initiation of additional treatments at home, Rusty began to improve. He could stand and take a few steps, and he regained the ability to urinate on his own.

Rusty is far from functioning normally, but he has begun the long process of recovery. Dr. Hirschberg believes that, with continued treatment, Rusty will eventually return to relatively normal function.

Photobiomodulation for End-Stage Liver Disease

One of Dr. Hirschberg's favorite memories is of a 10-month-old Labrador named J.J. who had been diagnosed with end-stage liver disease from an unknown cause. J.J. hadn't eaten anything in some time, and the owners were told he had only weeks left to live. They brought J.J. to Dr. Hirschberg to ask if there were any other options.

An ultrasound of J.J.'s liver revealed that he had a few areas of functional liver tissue remaining, so Dr. Hirschberg recommended trying light therapy. So they began treatment that day. And that night, J.J. went home and ate for the first time in weeks.

J.J. continued to improve and was even able to survive a surgery several months later. Although his liver enzymes remain elevated and he is not cured, J.J. is still alive, functioning, and happy three years later.

Light Therapy for Chronic Kidney Disease

Ever since Dr. Hirschberg was a veterinary student, he's dreaded giving patients a diagnosis of chronic kidney disease. It's difficult to treat, and any improvements are usually short term. However, kidney disease involves a significant amount of inflammation, something photobiomodulation specifically improves. For this reason, Dr. Hirschberg decided to try light therapy for certain feline patients with chronic kidney disease.

Ginger, a 9-year-old cat, hadn't been eating well, and her owners thought she had a dental problem. This turned out to be true, but lab work showed she also had stage four kidney disease. The average life expectancy for Ginger at that point was 30–90 days. However, with photobiomodulation, Ginger thrived for three more years, even moving down to stage three kidney disease at one point.

While light therapy didn't cure Ginger's disease, it was able to dramatically extend her life. With no other existing treatments that significantly improve chronic kidney disease in animals, Ginger's story offers hope.

How Light Therapy Works Dr. Hirschberg Vet

The Next Frontier in Light Therapy for Pets

Dr. Hirschberg looks forward to the release of Glowbie's new light therapy product for pets — the Glowbie crate.

Because dosage is an important factor in photobiomodulation, Dr. Hirschberg has helped Glowbie's engineering team design their light therapy crate specifically for veterinary applications. The device contains powerful light-emitting diodes (LEDs) that safely emit these optimized energy dosages. Treatments take only 10–15 minutes as the dog or cat relaxes in the crate.

The Glowbie crate is intended for at-home use for a variety of conditions in pets, including chronic pain, mobility issues, and arthritis. It is also intended to increase longevity for older animals.