Canine Sports Medicine Field Attracts Attention

Robert Gillette, DVM, MSE, and director of the Richard G. and Dorothy A. Metcalf Veterinary Sports Medicine Program, is shown with Sadie in his Biomechanics Laboratory.

Veterinary sports medicine is normally associated with horses, greyhounds, sled dogs and other working breeds, but general practitioners are fielding an increasing number of sports-related concerns from clients who exercise with their dogs – from jogging to playing Frisbee in the backyard.

And sports medicine programs – such as the one at Auburn University College of Veterinary Medicine in Alabama – are taking a new approach to canines, focusing on the prevention of sports-related injuries as demand increases for treatment options.

"I was afraid that alternative services like chiropractors and physical therapists would start working on dogs – like they have done with humans – and leave veterinarians behind," said Robert Gillette, DVM, MSE, and director of the Veterinary Sports Medicine Program at Auburn. "If we understand what dogs are doing we can prevent certain problems and address clients’ needs before they realize they need it."

Because the field includes activities "beyond lying on the couch," sports medicine applies to companion animals that participate in field trials, agility training and routine exercise that can cause orthopedic problems, Gillette said. Even regular exercise – like retrieving a ball – can cause hyperextension of a limb. And while the most common medicine-related complaints are pad and feet injuries, carpal strains, and tendonitis, the lengthy list also includes limber tails, Achilles tendon tears, heat stroke and endurance problems, and muscle tears like biceps brachii insertion, said experts.

At Auburn University, Gillette works to enhance the athletic abilities of dogs, minimize injuries in the field, and reduce rehabilitation time through research into the anatomy, physiology and psychology of dogs. He consults with veterinarians and owners to optimize all aspects of an animal’s health and expedite recovery.

"There’s a lot of interest from clientele," Gillette said, "I’d like more veterinarians to recognize this area so that we can keep up with it instead of falling behind."

Ben Character, DVM, who provides relief veterinary services, such as fracture repair, in Alabama, agreed. "I see sports medicine as a potential untapped niche market," he said. "For the general practitioner [who is] interested in sports medicine, there are many areas that are not routinely pushed, such as rehabilitation post-surgery, that could be developed. We, as a profession, need to do a better job of getting the word out about how important good health is for sporting dogs."

The field provides opportunities for veterinary technicians and will likely attract nutritionists, said Gillette, who ultimately plans to pursue board certification for the field of sports medicine.

"We can prevent a lot of medical problems with good nutritional programs and conditioning work," said Gillette. "Instead of treating dogs who are overheated or fatigued, we can prevent the problems."

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