Cold Plasma Is a Hot New Tool in Veterinary Medicine

A veterinary dermatologist at Cummings School recently began using cold plasma to treat chronic wounds and superficial skin infections in animals
Veterinary dermatologist Ramón Almela in a lab, who has recently began using cold plasma to treat chronic wounds and superficial skin infections in animals
There’s no need for sedation with cold plasma, and there are no side effects, said veterinary dermatologist Ramón Almela. Photo: Alonso Nichols
January 17, 2020

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You know about the three states of matter: solid, liquid, and gas. But did you know there’s a fourth? It’s plasma, and it makes up nearly 99 percent of the universe. The aurora borealis is made of plasma, and so are nebulas, stars, and even lightning.

Plasma is an ionized gas—a gas in which electrons have been torn away from their atoms—and usually it’s hot. However, under the right circumstances, scientists can create cold plasma, or nonthermal plasma.  

Why do that? Because cold plasma has several medical applications. The Food and Drug Administration recently approved it for use in clinical trials to treat microscopic cancer tumors remaining after surgery. Doctors use it to disinfect implants before putting them into patients. It’s used in dentistry for everything from whitening teeth to increasing the strength of a bond.

And now, at Cummings Veterinary Medical Center, cold plasma is being used to treat skin wounds in animals. The facility is the only veterinary medical center in New England that offers such care, according to veterinary dermatologist Ramón Almela, an assistant professor at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine.

Almela said cold plasma can be used on all types of animals, from cats and dogs to horses, birds, farm animals, and even exotic animals. The technology can treat superficial skin infections, benign skin growths, chronic wounds that won’t heal, and more.

Treatment is administered through a pen-like device that allows clinicians to target the affected area. A bluish stream of cold plasma comes out of the tip of the pen, almost like a laser. Almela noted that cold plasma kills pathogens—including viral, bacterial, and fungal organisms—but does not affect normal cells.

And, he said, treatment is practically painless. The only thing the animal feels is a bit of air blowing on the skin as the pen moves above it. Interestingly, cold plasma is not actually cold, just colder than plasma normally is. If you touch it with your finger, it feels warm.

“If you can use the treatment in an awake cat, that means there’s a very good chance you can use it in many patients without making them stressed or feel any kind of pain,” said Ramón Almela. Photo: Alonso NicholsAlmela said the number of treatments needed depends on the severity of the wound. Some patients may need just one or two treatments to see improvement, while those with larger wounds may require weeks of treatments. Usually the therapy is performed once or twice weekly, lasting less than a minute per square inch of affected area.

It’s hard to find a downside to cold plasma. There’s no need for sedation or anesthesia, so animals are awake during the procedure. There are no negative side effects, although Almela cautioned that “if you misuse it, like staying a long time with the same spot, there could be tissue damage, like a burn.” And when it comes to training doctors and technicians to use the pen,” Almela said, “the learning curve is really fast.”

The First Case at Cummings

Almela arrived at Tufts in 2019, having already used cold plasma on patients in Europe. At the Henry and Lois Foster Hospital for Small Animals, his first cold plasma treatment was on a cat. The cat had a suspected case of an inflammatory skin condition called feline eosinophilic granuloma complex, and a few areas on its thigh weren’t healing properly.

When Almela suggested trying cold plasma, the owners readily agreed, since other approaches over the course of a few months had been unsuccessful.

Almela gave the cat two cold plasma treatments. “After the first session, we it did again a week later. When the cat came for the second treatment, we saw so much improvement in just one week, much more improvement than in the last months,” he said.

Almela said cold plasma has great potential for fighting drug-resistant superficial bacterial infections, thanks to its antibacterial properties. (It also has antiviral and antifungal properties.) But he said the ease of use is the biggest benefit, and he put it in terms any cat owner will understand.

“If you can use the treatment in an awake cat, that means there’s a very good chance you can use it in many patients without making them stressed or feel any kind of pain,” he said.

Angela Nelson can be reached at angela.nelson@tufts.edu.