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Advanced medical care for pets catches on fast in Japan

Country unleashes regenerative medicine, MRIs and surgery on its ailing animals

Japan's pampered pets have an increasing number of advanced medical treatments and facilities to cure their ills. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)

TOKYO -- Following their masters' lead, pets in Japan are living longer, helped along in their dotage by advanced medical care and owners who are caring more.

According to Japan's Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, the country's average household paid 5,829 yen in veterinarian fees in 2017, an increase of over 20% from the 4,703 yen in 2010. The percentage of people who buy pet medical insurance is also rising.

On March 28, Fujifilm and Anicom Holdings, the biggest pet insurer in the country, started regenerative treatment for dogs while Japan Animal Referral Medical Center, or JARMeC, is planning to open its fourth hospital as early as spring 2019 in Osaka Prefecture.

The joint venture, Celltrust Animal Therapeutics, began regenerative treatment at an animal hospital in Yokohama near Tokyo. The treatment involves injecting canine patients with cultured mesenchymal stem cells, which can enhance the immune system

At the hospital, doctors take cells from healthy dogs then cultures and stores them, instead of using cells from patient itself. This speeds up treatment and allows the hospital to keep a supply of the cells.

The tie-up with Fujifilm gives Celltrust access to Japan Tissue Engineering, a Fujifilm group member and the first company to put regenerative medicine to practical use in Japan. The unit also has an ethics committee that includes lawyers.

For the time being, treatment is limited to dry eye syndrome, or keratoconjunctivitis sicca. The disorder, afflicting thousands of dogs in the country, is characterized by low tear secretions, resulting in dry and inflamed eyes.

Unlike for humans, practicing regenerative medicine on dogs does not require reporting to the government.

As such, an increasing number of animal hospitals and clinics are culturing mesenchymal stem cells for use in dogs. According to the Japanese Society for Veterinary Regenerative Medicine, about 170 veterinary clinics offer the treatment. But since there are no established standards, the quality of treatment may vary from doctor to doctor.

Celltrust aims to maintain the same level of safety and quality for dogs as for humans.

Another animal care company, Osaka-based DS Pharma Animal Health, a subsidiary of Sumitomo Dainippon Pharma, is partnering with medical startup J-Arm to develop a drug for pets that uses regenerative technology.

The companies are planning to start clinical tests in the near future. If approved by the government, the drug will become the first of its kind in Japan using regenerative technology.

In addition to drugs, pet owners can opt for surgery as well as advanced diagnosis procedures like MRI.

Meanwhile, JARMeC is operating hospitals for dogs and cats suffering from serious disorders such as cancer, kidney disease and intestinal blockage. The company employs about 70 veterinarians and treats pets on a referral basis only.

In January, the company opened a 1.4 billion yen ($13.1 million) hospital in Tokyo, adding to an existing location in Kawasaki, south of Tokyo, and one in the central Japanese city of Nagoya. The new facility can perform MRIs and CT scans, and is equipped with eight operating rooms.

JARMeC has secured land in Osaka for a fourth hospital, which will be similar in size and scope as the Tokyo facility.

For the year ended March 2017, JARMeC had recorded 19,236 treatments, up 370% compared to when it opened nine years ago.

The company attributes the increase partly to people treating their pets as family members. Pets are often kept inside, which makes it easier to notice ailments, thus increasing the number of visits to clinics and allowing for early detection of serious issues.

The average life span of dogs grew to 14.19 years in 2017 from 13.87 years in 2010, according to the Japan Pet Food Association.

As pet ages increase, so do ailments such as chronic kidney disease and diabetes. Last year, Kyoto-based Arkray, a maker of equipment for medical testing, introduced a device that quickly tests the kidney functions of dogs and cats. The company surpassed its annual sales target of 500 units in just six months.

Arkray also makes a hand-held device that allows pet owners to monitor blood glucose levels in dogs and cats. 

Although the number of pet dogs is decreasing, JARMeC expects owners seeking advanced medical treatment for pets will continue to increase.

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