Deep-sea and scuba divers have long used hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) to combat decompression sickness (aka the bends). In the medical field, it has been employed for over half a century to help people recover from ailments such as serious infections and hard-to-heal wounds. Now, this technology is being utilized to help pets with conditions as varied as head and spinal-cord trauma, disc disease, wounds and burns, infections, and inflammatory conditions.
The theory behind HBOT is that it promotes healing by elevating oxygen levels in the blood. This allows oxygen to diffuse into tissues that are difficult to reach. When there’s inflammation, damaged tissues, or injury, lack of oxygen is very commonly the limiting factor. By increasing the amount of oxygen delivered to those compromised tissues, we are stimulating a pet’s own healing abilities (like the immune system and stem cells) to begin the healing process.
Each treatment (we call them “dives”) usually lasts about an hour and is given once or twice a day. A patient is placed in a hyperbaric chamber and breathes 100% oxygen at up to 3 times the normal pressure. Most of our patients fall asleep during treatment, from their perspective, it’s pretty boring. The protocol is the same no matter how large or small the patient but the total number of treatments depends on the condition and how the patient responds.
The therapy is very safe and has essentially no side effects, however, it is important to select HBOT candidates carefully. Dogs or cats with certain types of respiratory problems or are predisposed to specific types of seizures need to be evaluated before undergoing the therapy.
We once started HBOT for a cat with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Her condition was so severe that she required a surgically-implanted feeding tube. Post op, the surgical site developed a resistant infection. Our intention was to help the site heal and treat the infection, but as an added benefit, her IBD improved to the point that she no longer required intensive medical monitoring!
Despite being approved for use in people for an array of medical conditions, there are plenty of skeptics who say that the lack of clinical trial data to support its claims makes it “experimental”. However, based on the human experience, it would seem that HBOT has the potential to become another valuable tool in the veterinary health-care toolbox.