February 2013

Pet Section: Canine Physical Rehabilitation

Author: Kathy Wander, DVM<MS,DACVS, CCRT

The use of physical therapy to assist recovery is now an accepted practice in human medicine and surgery. Physical therapy has been a vital part of helping people recover from injury, surgery and illness since WWI. Our animal friends deserve the same services to help them to heal. Rehabilitation for companion animals targets restoration of physical function, for example, the ability to walk in a previously paralyzed patient. Physical rehabilitation can promote a more rapid recovery from neurological or orthopedic disorders and surgery, helping to avoid complications associated with prolonged cage rest. In otherwise healthy animals, this therapy can improve or maintain strength, stamina and body condition.

For a dog, daily activities include walking, running, playing and getting on/off furniture, grooming or even specific jobs for working dogs. Following surgery, injury, or even just with age, these basic activities can be quite challenging. Physical rehabilitation provides benefits such as pain management, improved joint range of motion, muscle strengthening and an overall improvement in well-being.

Rehabilitation helps animals recently recovering from surgery as well as non-surgical candidates (chronic arthritis, degenerative myelopathy), geriatric and over-weight patients.

Dogs are the most common patients in physical rehabilitation, but cats can take advantage of rehabilitation as well.

Who can benefit from rehabilitation?
-Dogs with medical orthopedic disorders – hip dysplasia, arthritis
-Preoperative and postoperative orthopedic patients
-Neurological patients—intervertebral disc herniation, degenerative myelopathy, wobbler syndrome
-Overweight patients
-Geriatric patients
-Agility, performance and working dogs

What are the benefits of rehabilitation?
-Reduce pain
-Promote healing by improving circulation
-Restore and maintain range of joint motion and normal movement patterns
-Build muscle mass during recovery from injury
-Allow safe and controlled activity during recovery
-Increase cardiovascular fitness
-Combat obesity
-Improve overall quality of life

Physical rehabilitation involves numerous techniques, including manipulation, therapeutic laser, exercise, and water therapy. Therapeutic laser therapy or low level laser therapy is a form of light that promotes bio-modulation. Molecules within the cells absorb the light energy and transform the electromagnetic energy to biochemical energy, resulting in increased cell metabolism and tissue repair. Laser treatment has been linked to changes in nerve conduction and blood flow, production of new blood vessels, and increased metabolism of pain-modifying molecules. Low level laser therapy is used extensively to reduce pain and inflammation and speed healing of muscles, tendons and ligaments. Laser therapy has been used to treat open wounds, acute and chronic inflammation, lick granulomas, nerve pain, joint pain, herniated discs, muscle spasms and other soft tissue injuries.

Underwater treadmills allow dogs to exercise at a level that is appropriate and safe for their condition. Whether it is an older dog that is having trouble walking or a performance dog that needs more activity to prepare for the rigors of the show/trial season, an underwater treadmill program can help. The warm water relaxes tight muscles and soothes achy joints while improving blood flow and facilitating healing.

Hydrostatic pressure can reduce swelling—helpful for pets recovering from trauma. The water’s resistance provides a more effective workout for arthritic or overweight dogs and cats than walking on land, while the water’s buoyancy reduces the strain on the joints that are already stressed by disease or extra weight. Buoyancy also makes it possible for pets that cannot stand due to weakness or pain, to stand in the water, helping them to begin bearing weight again.

Therapeutic exercise is one of the most important aspects of physical rehabilitation. The challenge is to figure out how to get your pet to do the exercises correctly. Using peanut-shaped balls, stairs, wobble boards, cavaletti rails and hair scrunchies, therapeutic exercises are created to help the pet improve strength, balance, proprioception, range of motion and gait. Essential core strength and balance exercises are developed for each dog.

By improving strength, balance, coordination, and minimizing pain, physical rehabilitation will help your pet return to his favorite activities, be more comfortable and be happy.

Dr. Kathy Wander is a board certified veterinary surgeon and canine rehabilitation therapist. She currently practices at Heritage Animal Hospital on Hilton Head Island. For more information, call (843) 842-8331.

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