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Could Physical Therapy Improve Your Dog’s Mobility?

Animal Rehabiliation

Animal rehabilitation (physical therapy) had its start in the 1960s as horse racing and other equine events grew in popularity. More events meant more injured horses, and owners and trainers began to seek rehabilitative veterinary services for their animals.

Canine physical therapy became commonplace in Europe in the 1980s and interest here in the U.S. started to grow a decade or so later.

Today, rehabilitation is the fastest growing arm of veterinary medicine. There are now 17 veterinary colleges in the U.S. offering instruction in canine rehabilitation, and over 300 people were certified as therapists in 2008. The number of veterinary practices offering rehab services is also growing rapidly.

Dr. Becker's Comments:

One of the main forces behind the rising demand for canine rehab services are dog owners with an awareness of the benefits of physical therapy for their pets, and an expectation their neighborhood veterinarian will be able to provide this type of care.

The growing popularity of canine agility trials and sports like Flyball are also adding to the need for physical therapy for dogs that compete.

Local and federal governments who use highly-trained service dogs are also learning the advantages of rehab for their canine workers, including police and search and rescue dogs.

We’ve barely scratched the surface of the potential of rehab to improve the lives of dogs, but a short list of the benefits of canine physical therapy includes:

  • Increased rate of recovery from injury and surgery
  • Improved functional abilities
  • Weight loss assistance
  • Pain reduction
  • Increased strength and range of motion
  • Performance enhancement of athletic dogs
  • Improved quality of life

The Goal of Rehabilitation

The purpose of physical therapy is to help the patient, whether human or canine, regain functional ability, optimize movement of all body parts, and improve quality of life.

If you have a dog that has undergone surgery, for example, the role of rehabilitation and in particular water therapy can prove invaluable.

Studies indicate your pet’s muscles will begin to atrophy within just a day or two after an injury or surgery. If rehab is not started immediately, the area of the wound or injury will show increased swelling due to lack of movement.

There can also be loss of muscle control, decreased stability in joints, and increased stiffness of tendons and muscles.

Normal weight-bearing activities that would arrest and reverse these conditions often can’t be allowed for weeks postoperatively. But your dog can begin physical therapy in a pool right away.

Underwater treadmills are an excellent way to make use of your injured pet’s natural functional activities like walking, trotting and running. An underwater treadmill takes advantage of your dog’s natural gait patterns which helps improve his range of motion after an injury or surgery.

At the same time, the water provides gentle resistance, which helps build and maintain his muscle strength.

Is My Dog a Candidate for Physical Therapy?

Dr. Becker’s dog Isabelle is on a Powerplate, an acceleration training technique that stimulates muscle fibers that have atrophied.
Dr. Becker’s dog Isabelle is on a Powerplate, an acceleration training technique that stimulates muscle fibers that have atrophied.

The need for rehabilitation in the canine population is quickly evolving from primarily post-operative cases to include a wide range of disabling conditions seen in working and performance dogs, agility dogs and family pets.

Canine rehab services and modalities have expanded to include dogs who suffer from a wide range of functional disabilities, including:

  • Gait abnormalities
  • Spinal cord injuries (common in long backed dogs like dachshunds)
  • Joint injuries
  • Soft tissue injuries
  • Arthritis
  • Inflammation and swelling
  • Pain
  • Overuse injuries
  • Geriatric conditions

Canine rehabilitation specialists typically work with your veterinarian to tailor a program to fit your dog’s specific therapy needs.

A course of rehabilitation can be as short as two visits or as long as three weekly visits for three months. Sessions are generally an hour, and progress is carefully documented at each visit.

Your pup will also receive homework in the form of exercises and other milestones to accomplish between visits.

Types of Rehabilitation Therapies Available

  1. Manual therapies including exercise, joint mobilization, therapeutic stretches and massage, typically performed by certified rehabilitation practitioners highly skilled in these techniques.

  2. Strength, coordination, flexibility and balance therapies use tools like rocker and wobble boards, physioballs, therapy bands and Cavaletti poles. “Unbalancing” exercises like walking on irregular surfaces help your dog learn where her feet are in space and how to keep from falling over with changes in body position.

  3. Aquatic therapy using underwater treadmill and swimming. The buoyancy of water takes pressure off your dog’s injured or painful joints. Water therapy also improves your pet’s cardiovascular health, muscle strength and range of motion. Swimming uses natural canine motions to improve mobility.

  4. Cryotherapy is the use of cold packs to reduce pain and inflammation, and decrease both surface and deep tissue bleeding.

  5. Heat therapy uses heat packs or warm, moist towels, to decrease pain and inflammation and speed healing.

  6. Extracorporeal Shockwave Therapy (ESWT) is a therapeutic ultrasound device that transmits high-energy sound waves through your dog’s skin. This causes soft tissues to vibrate and generate heat, increasing blood flow, oxygen and nutrients to internal injuries and wounds. ESWT can break down scar tissue, reduce swelling and inflammation and muscle spasms. It has been used successfully to improve conditions including fractures, tendon and ligament injuries, hip dysplasia and osteoarthritis.

  7. Low-level laser therapy is used to improve wound healing, reduce post-trauma swelling, and facilitate long lasting pain relief by stimulating the release of your dog’s own pain killing chemicals like endorphins.

  8. Neuromuscular Electrical Stimulation (NMES) is low-volt electrical stimulation of motor nerves to cause muscle contractions. Contraction/relaxation of your dog’s muscles can help to improve musculoskeletal and vascular conditions.

A Brighter Future for Injured and Disabled Dogs

Your canine companion was born to move. Walking, running, playing, swimming -- these are things she longs to do but can’t if she’s not healthy and fit.

Without the ability to move around comfortably, exercise and explore the world, the quality of your pup’s life suffers.

Canine rehabilitation is an exciting, evolving area of veterinary medicine that holds great promise for restoring the health and mobility of physically compromised dogs.