Leeches: 'What works and what sucks' in veterinary medicine

Patty Khuly, DVM
Updated: November 02, 2010
Published: January 03, 2009
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Yes, veterinary surgeons use leeches. Mostly, this happens at the highest levels of vet medicine (usually in university settings) where degloving injuries, traumatic amputations, tissue flaps and non-healing wounds are commonly dealt with.

For the average veterinarian and pet owner, leeches might seem like a throwback to the days when George Washington was leeched and bled with regularity by way of alleviating his ills. As far as we can tell, old George died of complications associated with his severe anemia…and never once received any medical benefits for his trials. Now that sucks, never mind the leeches.

In modern America leeches are used for the sublime and the ridiculous, alike. High-tech human and animal medicine employ their anticoagulant, antibacterial and fluid-draining properties to heal wounds, mostly. They're approved by the FDA as "medical devices."

And some Hollywood starlets are similarly convinced of their non-traditional benefits. Demi Moore reportedly attaches leeches to her abdomen in some strange health-related ritual apparently reserved for the rich and eccentric among us.

I prefer to stick with the former approach, unconvinced as I am of the supposed cosmetic benefits of leeches. But I’ve never yet used them. My vet surgeon boyfriend thinks they do great work, but even he’s steered clear of them since leaving the university setting.

This is less a matter of principle than of logistics, however, given that leeches don’t exactly lend themselves to ready availability in a traditional hospital setting. After all, leeches require maintenance, clients don’t readily accept their use, the cases in which they might do their best work are relatively few and far between for most of us, and they must be disposed of once they’re used.

Ultimately, leeching is expensive. At $10-20 per leech according to leechusa.com (a wonderfully informative site for those of you interested) it might not sound like much but consider the husbandry issues: Leeches must be maintained at 42 to 45 degrees, their water must be changed every other day, special salts must be added to their water, and you might not see a worthy and willing patient for over a month.

That’s why each leech application reportedly costs $100 and up.

Nonetheless, I’m finally intrigued enough to order a few for my next ear hematoma patient. I’ve heard great things about how

well leeches can drain a pocket of blood in the ear. Though most veterinary surgeons consider the surgical approach perfectly adequate, I disagree. I’ve always thought there should be a better way. It’s the potential for this alternative that gives me reason

enough to place an order courtesy of Carolina Biological.

In case you’re wondering, not all leeches are created equal. Medical grade leeches are required for our patients, though I’m not sure I know what goes into producing these creatures. I imagine they’re laboratory bred and therefore as “sterile” as any living organism can be. But still…

So what do you think? Am I crazy to want to attach a slimy creature to the ears of my patients? Will they sit for it? How many leeches will I have to apply? How long will it take? Will my clients go for it? These are all open questions. But the spirit is willing and the will is not weak on this one. I think I’ll have a go at it.