Curious about red light therapy for dogs and if there is any science to back it up? We looked into the research and spoke with a pup parent who’s done it to give you a fuller picture of what it's all about.
While still being studied, current research suggests that red light therapy may offer dogs relief from inflammation and can speed up wound healing. While tools of varying quality can be purchased online, it's best to check with your vet and see what they recommend.
If you spend any time online or on #DogTok, you may have come across discussions about red light therapy for dogs. A quick Google brings up scores of explainer blog posts from companies that sell red light therapy products, but unbiased information about what exactly this treatment is and how it can impact dogs is harder to come by. After one of our colleagues had a positive experience having her dog treated with it, we dove into the science to sort out fact from fiction.
What is red light therapy for dogs?
At the simplest level, light therapy for dogs is the use of LEDs or LASER diodes to apply certain wavelengths of light to areas of a dog where treatment is sought. This may also be referred to as low level light therapy (LLLT) or photobiomodulation (PBM), but the concept is the same. As the name suggests, red light therapy is the use of light that falls in the portion of the spectrum that the human eye reads as red to treat specific issues in dogs.
Practitioners argue that red light is able to stimulate cellular activity, cellular regeneration, and increase blood flow to treated areas. This, in turn, is believed to offer dogs relief from a variety of conditions, including inflammation, chronic joint pain, wound healing, and skin conditions.
What we DO know about the benefits of red light therapy for dogs
That all sounds great, but what does the science actually say? It turns out that there is some evidence to support the claims that red light therapy offers benefits in certain cases.
Wound healing and closure, for example, was found to be helped by low intensity light therapy. A more comprehensive survey of light-based therapies for dogs found that PBM generally was found to reduce inflammation, pain, and edema, and red light wavelengths were specifically anti-inflammatory.
Another study found that dogs treated with low level light therapy recovered from back surgery almost four times faster than those who were not treated. All this means that there is some amount of grounded, scientific basis to assume red light therapy has benefits for dogs.
What we DON’T know about red light therapy for dogs
The biggest open questions about red light therapy for dogs is how much of the therapy is required to generate a positive impact and what tools actually deliver effective treatment. Based on the variance of what is used in the referenced studies, dogs of different sizes may require different session durations (ranging from 5 to 20 minutes, typically) and certain ailments may require adjustments to where in the red light spectrum therapeutic benefit is seen. Put another way, one issue may be helped by a therapy at one wavelength and a different issue may be better served by therapy at a different wavelength. The available research is inconclusive on those specifics.
The tools themselves used in these studies also varied, from whole room red lights to targeted therapeutic lasers, to commercially available handheld tools. There appears to be no consensus about what kind of tool or light source is most effective when using red light therapy on a dog.
A personal experience
Caitlin works at Sundays and found herself in a tough scenario with her 13 year-old chiweenie pup, Dodger: a sudden, scary loss of mobility.
“He hadn't been feeling well and then all of a sudden he couldn't even stand,” she said. “He just flopped like a pancake to the ground.”
After taking him to the emergency vet, Caitlin was informed Dodger had developed cervical spine distress, compounded by inflamed joints and paws from his pre-existing arthritis. After a quick triage and adjustment, her vet suggested they include red light therapy as part of his treatment plan.
“They said that it's a newer therapy that they're offering and that it helped dogs with inflammation and limited mobility,” Caitlin told us. “It only took a few minutes and while they said it's most beneficial over time, the vet thought it could help now when he was in acute pain. I was a bit hysterical and would have tried anything at that point.”
“The treatment was a combination of an adjustment from the vet, medication, and red light therapy,” Caitlin recounted. “When he left the office, it seemed like he had better mobility but I wasn't sure if it was related to the red light or not. So the next week, I brought him in again for red light therapy just as kind of a, ‘well, let’s see if this does something’ because he had finished his medication and it seemed like he might be regressing. After that appointment, his mobility and stability seemed to improve. That's when I started to think maybe this is real.”
A secondary benefit to pursuing a red light therapy treatment? “Dodger is a chiweenie, so he has a longer body, is a little weirdly shaped, and has a tendency to get injured. When he had back problems in the past, he’d be put on anti-inflammatories or steroids and rest, which I found sometimes don't work,” Caitlin noted. “So it's like he’s taking this strong medication and he's not really seeing the benefit.”
With red light therapy, Caitlin says she found a relatively high ratio of reward to risk. “The cost at my vet was quite low, so it wasn’t one of those terrible wildcard expenses,” she recalled. “My only regret was that I didn’t know more about this as a possible treatment sooner. As a preventative, this seems like something that might have offered Dodger a real benefit.”