Caitlin UltimoHealth / Symptoms & Solutions

Physical Therapy for Your Pet

Contributed by Dr. Alison Birken, owner and DVM of Victoria Park Animal Hospital.

How Animal Physical Therapy Works

Nowadays, veterinary care for our pets is becoming more specialized. In addition to their general veterinarian, pets can now be evaluated by veterinary dermatologists, surgeons, oncologists, internal medicine specialists, behaviorists and physical therapists—just to name a few.

Animal rehabilitation centers with animal physical therapy veterinary specialists offer specialized veterinary treatments—and they’re popping up everywhere. However, many of my pet parents are unfamiliar with how dog physical therapy and cat physical therapy can be beneficial for their beloved pet, or what options they have for physical therapy treatment. So today, I would like to take a moment to discuss what physical rehabilitation for your pet consists of and under what circumstances I would refer my patients to a PT specialist. 

What Is Physical Rehabilitation?

Physical medicine and rehabilitation (PM&R) is a specialty of veterinary medicine that aims to enhance and restore functional ability and quality of life to pets. They could be suffering from physical impairments or disabilities affecting the brain, spinal cord, nerves, bones, joints, ligaments, muscles and tendons. The goals of cat and dog physical therapy are to maximize pets’ independence in their daily activities and to improve their quality of life.

Reasons Your Dog May Need Physical Rehabilitation?

Your pet can benefit from physical rehabilitation to recover from an orthopedic surgery, treat neurologic disease, help with pain and stiffness from arthritis or degenerative joint disease, and to treat soft tissue injuries.

How Do I Know If My Pet Needs Animal Physical Therapy?

Many times, it is obvious that your pet may be suffering from pain. They may show the typical signs of pain, such as limping, crying or panting. Other times, pain in your pet is not so obvious, especially when the pain stems from chronic long-term medical problems such as degenerative joint disease. Subtle signs of pain that may go unnoticed include:

  • Difficulty rising from sleeping or lying down
  • Hesitation to climb the stairs or get up on furniture
  • Reluctance to go for walks or only wanting to go on short walks
  • Longer naps or decreased appetite

Your veterinarian is always your best resource for your pet’s overall health and well-being.  They can perform a thorough evaluation with bloodwork and radiographs to rule out other causes of disease. Once a full assessment by your veterinarian has been completed, they will refer your pet to an animal rehabilitation center, if necessary.

What Are the Benefits of Physical Rehabilitation?

Just like in humans, there are many benefits and advantages that animal physical therapy can offer your pet, including improved and faster healing, decreased pain and inflammation, and better functionality and mobility.

Different Therapy Exercises Physical Therapist Perform

  • Passive range of motion (PROM) exercises. A therapist manually moves your pet’s joints back and forth, emulating the normal movement of your pet. This helps to improve range of motion and flexibility in the joint.
  • Heat and cold therapy. As with humans, heat and cold therapy can greatly help with physical rehabilitation, and they go hand-in-hand with PROM. Warm compresses help prepare the muscles for activity, while cold therapy reduces inflammation and pain after exercise.
  • An underwater treadmill. This form of animal physical therapy is becoming more and more common in rehabilitation centers. It’s a great way to promote exercise with your pet without straining their joints. Water can be added to the swim tank to create different levels of intensity. The higher the level of water, the less of the pet’s weight that is carried. Over time, and as your pet becomes stronger, the level of water is decreased and the speed is increased. To continue building up your pet’s strength, they will also increase the duration of the sessions.
  • An obstacle course. These courses are helpful in increasing balance, dexterity and paw placement with patients that have suffered from neurological injuries. These courses can include balance bars, hills, steps, bars and ramps.
  • Therapeutic ultrasound. This is a specific kind of ultrasonic wave that stimulates muscle activity. This treatment modality provides heat to muscles, tendons and ligaments to help promote healing and strength.
  • Cold therapy laser. This is a newer treatment that is becoming increasingly popular. The cold laser works at the level of the cells. It decreases inflammation and promotes blood circulation, helping to decrease pain and promote healing.

Are There Any Risks to Physical Rehabilitation?

Dog and cat physical therapy is considered very safe, although there could be complications if performed improperly. If PT is not administered correctly, you may see no improvement or even worsening of your pet’s condition. It is always in your pet’s best interest to have a board-certified veterinary therapist conduct the exercises and show you specifically how to perform them at home.  

As a small animal veterinarian, nothing makes me happier than to know that there are so many advanced treatment and therapeutic options for our pets. I hope this article helps to educate pet parents on the benefits and advantages of physical rehabilitation, and to be aware that these treatment options are available to help our pets suffering with pain. As always, my number one priority is the best health and well-being for your pets.  

Alison Birken bio

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