Ruby looks nervous. She sits upright on her bunny-like haunches, her fuzzy red ears point straight up in the air; her round black eyes stare straight at mine. The man in the black suit is cranking the dial on the adjacent control panel. 0.3...0.4... the numbers climb by the seconds as the atmospheric pressure inside the glass cylinder rises. The man tells me the optimal pressure for dogs is 1.2 atm, roughly what Ruby would have experienced as a fetus inside her mom's belly.
Photo courtesy of Tetsuya Miura
We're at Wag Style, a doggie day spa on the side street of a trendy Tokyo neighborhood. I've brought Ruby here to test out a canine hyperbaric oxygen chamber that I once blogged about. The technology is the same as that rumored to be used by athletes ranging from Lance Armstrong to Michael Vick — it sends concentrated amounts of oxygen to problem areas in higher atmospheric pressure, supposedly expediting the recovery process.
The science, predictably, is kind of fluffy. "Increasing oxygen tension above and beyond what is physiological can cause risks, like oxidative damage," says Dr. Richard Mailman, a pharmacology expert at Penn State. "The evidence that it works is totally anecdotal." Nonetheless, hyperbaric oxygen therapy centers are quite common these days, claiming to heal everything from skin tags to autism.
For dogs, hyperbaric oxygen chambers are supposed to have the aerobic benefit of two hours of exercise. Tsuyoshi Hirano, the man who owns Wag Style and invented the doggie oxygen chamber Ruby's sitting in, tells me stories of miracles that have happened under his watch — crippled dogs who recovered their youthful gait, wounds that healed within minutes, visible reversal of aging.
Hyperbaric oxygen therapy is used to heal animals in America, too. "We thought we were drinking our own bathwater for awhile," says Kristen Johnson of Equine Hyperbarics, an organization that specializes in treating horses and other animals. "You can watch a horrible wound on a dog change in a few treatments. It's insane." Equine Hyperbarics has distributed 14 chambers nationwide that provide daily treatments to race horses at about $300-400 a session.
Wag Style has daycare, massages, haircuts, even hair extensions for those needing a little extra something. It sounds ridiculous, but pampering pets has become a pretty popular pastime in Japan. Judging from the look on Ruby's face, this is the last place she wants to be on this cold Monday afternoon. As I later discover from my own half hour session of oxgen therapy (at Wag Style, humans and dogs can get treated side by side), the first few minutes are quite uncomfortable — my ears are popping as if I was on an airplane, and the machine makes a whirring noise that would no doubt irritate a dog's keen sense of hearing. After a while, I enter a meditative state, though I'm not sure if it's due to the atmospheric pressure or the fact that I'm lying face up in a zipped-up compression tube with nothing else to do.
When Ruby and I emerge from our respective oxygen cells, she greets me happily and we prance out of Wag Style together. We both feel energized and happy, but I think that might have been more from relief than from the oxygen.