By Dr. Becker
Hyperbaric oxygen chambers are pressurized tubes, or in some cases rooms, where hyperbaric oxygen therapy is delivered. This technique has been used in human medicine for decades to treat a variety of conditions including air bubbles in blood vessels (arterial gas embolism), decompression sickness (“the bends”), carbon monoxide poisoning, wounds that won’t heal, crushing injuries, gangrene, a skin or bone infection that causes tissue death, radiation injuries, burns, skin grafts or skin flaps that can cause tissue death, and severe anemia.
In a hyperbaric oxygen chamber, the air pressure is up to three times greater than normal. This causes the lungs to collect up to three times more pure oxygen than is possible when breathing atmospheric oxygen. The pure oxygen is transported throughout the body via the blood stream, which encourages the release of growth factors and stem cells that promote healing.
Reduces Swelling and Speeds Healing in Animals
In Florida and a few other states, hyperbaric oxygen therapy is increasingly being used on pets.
The University of Florida’s College of Veterinary Medicine has recently treated dogs, cats, ferrets, rabbits and even a monkey with oxygen therapy. According to professor and DVM Justin Shmalberg, they have treated rattlesnake bites, infected wounds, and animals hit by cars. Essentially any kind of problem that causes swelling of tissue is a candidate for the hyperbaric chamber.
This summer, the school will begin clinical trials to determine if what they are seeing is “real” – that hyperbaric oxygen therapy helps reduce swelling and speed healing in animals. There isn’t much research on this type of treatment for pets, though ironically, most of the research for human oxygen therapy is the result of studies on rats and rabbits.
Dr. Diane Levitan, owner of a veterinary practice in New York, has a hyperbaric chamber in her facility and has seen improved rates of healing for certain conditions including abscesses, post-radiation swelling and herniated discs. Dr. Levitan is writing an article for a veterinary journal on her use of hyperbaric oxygen therapy and agrees with Dr. Shmalberg that it’s important to establish the science behind the success of the technique for certain conditions. “It’s not a panacea,” says Levitan. “There are specific reasons why this is helpful.”
Pets are Comfortable and Relaxed During Treatment
The Animal Emergency and Referral Center in Ft. Pierce, Florida also has a hyperbaric oxygen chamber. They describe the treatment this way:
“Inside the chamber, pets lie on a soft blanket and rest or sleep while the oxygen goes to work on wounds, swelling, burns and other injuries or illnesses. The pets are comfortable and relaxed during dog/cat hyperbaric therapy treatment. The total HBOT treatment time is from 1 to 2 hours, and is usually repeated twice a day. Treatments continue until the doctors see a marked improvement. When your pet is beginning to use the affected limb, or is gaining strength and function, the animal hyperbaric oxygen chamber treatments are discontinued.”
This facility uses oxygen therapy for patients with post operative swelling, snake bites, wounds and burns, head and spinal injuries, near-drowning or asphyxiation, and smoke inhalation.
'About the Size of a Loveseat'
As you might expect, some (probably many) human insurance companies don’t cover oxygen therapy because it’s “unproven,” however, people who have had success with treatments will seek it out anyway. And the same is true for pet owners. They research the treatment and then seek it out for an ailing pet.
The equipment used at the University of Florida is “about the size of a loveseat.” The DVM who initially arranged for the equipment at UF estimates he’s used the chamber 750-800 times in the last 18 months and feels it is very effective for any kind of trauma.
Since most vet practices can’t afford to buy a chamber (equipment for humans runs between $50,000 and $150,000 each), the manufacturer actually gives the chambers to clinics and receives a percentage of each treatment done. Treatments run about $125 per session at the UF clinic.
The equipment can be dangerous to use because 100 percent oxygen is involved. Animals are patted down with water before they go into the chamber so their coat doesn’t attract static electricity and start a fire. Tragically, last year a hyperbaric oxygen chamber in a Florida equine veterinary center exploded, killing a staff member and the horse inside the chamber, and collapsing part of the building. Apparently, the horse hit the side of the enclosure with a foot, which caused a spark that set off the explosion.
Although this type of accident is incredibly rare, some veterinarians view hyperbaric therapy as a treatment of last resort. I don’t agree. With proper training, the hyperbaric oxygen chamber is as safe as any other veterinary treatment equipment, but without side effects. Inhaling pure oxygen in this manner triggers the body’s own ability to heal, which is always the goal.