By Dr. Becker
If you have a dog undergoing physical therapy for an injury, after surgery, or for some other reason, did you know there are things you can do at home to make your pet more comfortable and even speed up the healing process?
Many pet guardians feel helpless when they aren't able to offer assistance to a dog recovering from an injury or illness. These are typically owners who are highly motivated to help their canine companion return to full mobility without pain, and they are eager to be "hands on" between rehab appointments, working with their pet to help him heal.
If this sounds like you, you may find the following suggestions for "do-it-yourself" physical therapy for your dog very helpful. However, PLEASE don't attempt any of these therapies without first discussing them with your dog's physical therapist and/or veterinarian, and if your dog chooses to not participate, honor that.
Heat therapy can help decrease your pet's pain and muscle spasms, increase nerve conduction, improve the elasticity of fibrous tissue, increase blood vessel dilation, and lower blood pressure.
Apply warmth to the site of your dog's stiff joint, injury or surgery for 10 to 15 minutes using hot packs wrapped in a cloth or towel, heat wraps, warm water, or towels soaked in hot water (but not too hot). Be very careful to avoid burns – check the area often to make sure the skin isn't too hot.
To make your own hot pack, simply soak a towel in hot water, or wet it and warm it in the microwave. Put the towel in a plastic bag, cover the injury site on your dog's body with another towel or cloth, and place the plastic bag over it, again insuring the pack isn't hot enough to burn your pet's skin.
Heat therapy can be used whenever your pet seems uncomfortable or if you just feel like treating him to a little TLC. It can be especially beneficial when applied immediately before a physical therapy session.
Cold therapy (cryotherapy) can help to reduce inflammation and swelling, muscle spasms, and also pain.
Apply cold packs to your dog's injury or surgery site for 10 to 15 minutes, and especially after each physical therapy session. You can use commercial ice packs, frozen bags of veggies from your freezer, or create your own ice pack by combining one part rubbing alcohol and three parts water in a plastic bag and freezing it.
Always place a cloth or towel between the ice pack and your pet's skin, and check the area every few minutes. If you're applying the ice pack to a fresh surgical site, first cover the incision with vitamin A and D ointment, or a sterile gauze pad (as directed by your vet) to prevent the damp insulated layer from infecting the surgical wound.
Walking is excellent therapy for dogs with mobility issues and those who are recovering from certain surgeries. Walking can help increase your pet's range of motion, promote normal gait and movement, improve strength and muscle mass, promote good circulation, improve endurance, and help prevent joint degeneration.
Immediately after your dog undergoes surgery or suffers an injury that limits her mobility, it's important to leave the timing and initial attempts at walking up to the professionals – your pet's vet and/or rehab therapist. Once it's safe for your pet to walk with you, put a leash on her and walk her short distances on firm surfaces that provide good footing. Go slow so your dog has time to place each paw on the ground and shift weight to that limb. This will insure even therapy across all limbs.
As your dog improves, the therapist may suggest you walk her up a gradual incline or short flight of stairs to increase strength, muscle mass, flexibility, and range of motion in her back legs, just as walking on a decline strengthens the front half of her body. Also walk her in figure-8 patterns to encourage her to put weight on all four legs evenly.
Another beneficial exercise is to have your dog do sit-to-stand movements to strengthen her quadriceps and hamstrings. You can either have her do these movements periodically on walks, or have her do repeated sets of stationary sit-to-stands. Make sure she's sitting with both legs under her backside. If she needs help with this, place her weaker leg against your leg as she sits, or have her do the movement against a wall.
As your dog gets more comfortable and mobile, you can increase the speed of your walks, gradually working up to a run when the therapist signs off on this activity.
Exercising in water (hydrotherapy) is one of the best all-around rehabilitation therapies because it reduces swelling and pooling of fluid in the body, improves muscle mass, strength, and range of motion, increases endurance, encourages weight loss, and decreases pain. (But please note that your dog's incision(s) must be healed before considering any type of water therapy.)
Again, this isn't something you want to attempt without first consulting your pet's rehab therapist. Obviously, if your dog is a medium to large breed and you don't have a pool in your backyard, this won't be possible. If you do have access to a swimming pool and your dog is used to being in the water, entice him to move around in the pool using whatever motivates him (food treats, a ball, or some other toy). Never leave your dog unattended in the water, and make sure he isn't completely submerged. To increase resistance as your dog's recovery progresses, either lower the water level in the pool, or encourage him to walk back and forth in the shallow end or on a concrete step or bench in the pool.
If your dog is on the small side, you may be able to use your bathtub as a hydrotherapy pool. Put a towel on the bottom of the tub so your pet has secure footing, fill it to an appropriate water level and encourage her to walk back and forth in the water. Alternatively, you could use a backyard "kiddie pool," depending on the size of your dog.
Hopefully, I've given you some ideas for how to help your dog heal at home after surgery or an injury. Done correctly and with guidance from your pet's professional healthcare team, not only can these do-it-yourself suggestions speed up your dog's recovery, they can also help to deepen the bond you share with your pet.