Human athletes have long understood the benefits of physical therapy when trying to recuperate from an illness or surgery. After all, their goal is to get back in the game as soon as possible. Many pet owners want the same thing and have found that physical medicine and rehabilitation may provide the help they need.
Veterinarians can either offer physical medicine in their hospital, or can refer you to a facility that does, and the benefits are remarkable. Dr. Jacqueline Davidson, a veterinary surgeon at Texas A & M University’s College of Veterinary Medicine says “Animals that have had orthopedic or neurologic surgery are often seen for rehabilitation. But even pets who need to lose some weight, those who suffer from arthritis or who just need some conditioning can benefit from this sort of therapy.”
The goal of physical rehabilitation is not only to restore the natural function of the pet, but to attempt to bring the patient back to a pre-injury state.
Veterinarians and technicians who practice physical medicine use a wide variety of methods and technologies to help their patients. In many surgical cases, the pet needs to rebuild strength in muscles that have weakened from lack of use. In a case like this, carefully controlled exercises under the guidance of a trained professional can help the animal make great strides. Pets can learn to use a treadmill or even use balance balls and wobble boards to help strengthen those de-conditioned muscles.
By far one of the most popular therapies for pets is the underwater treadmill. These devices are especially helpful for overweight or older animals. The buoyancy of the water helps to lessen the weight bearing impact on the joints and make it easier for the pet to build up strength and endurance. Hydrotherapy and swimming are other popular rehabilitation options.
Other popular modalities use heat and cold carefully delivered to the tissues. Something as simple as heat packs can increase blood flow and help the joint’s range of motion in that area. After a therapy session cold packs, can be used to minimize inflammation.
Common therapies include coordination exercises, such as weaving through cones or walking over hurdles, strength building routines, like uphill or downhill walking (often on a treadmill) and even medical massage, trigger point release and passive range of motion exercises. A real benefit here is that many of these therapies can be learned by the pet’s owner and applied regularly at home.
There are also many high tech modalities that veterinarians are now trying in a variety of cases. Therapeutic ultrasound and low-level lasers both deliver heat deep in the tissues. Along with medications, electrical nerve stimulation can be used to block or ease pain.
Rehabilitation in animals is very specialized. There are certifications for dogs, cats and horses. An important thing to remember when searching for a rehabilitator is that any therapies applied should be performed or overseen by a licensed veterinarian. Physical rehabilitation done by someone who does not understand the subtle signs of animal pain or have a global view of veterinary medicine can actually do much more harm than good.
Many veterinary rehabilitators have undergone outstanding additional education and can become certified in the use of these treatments. Look for Certified Canine Rehabilitation Practitioners (CCRP), Certified Canine Rehabilitation Therapists (CCRT) or Certified Canine Rehabilitation Assistants (CCRA). For horses look for the Certified Equine Rehabilitation Practitioner (CERP). Ask your veterinarian for help finding a certified practitioner in your area.