What is veterinary physical rehabilitation?

Physical therapy or rehabilitation has helped many people recover from injuries and surgery. Now, physical rehabilitation increasingly is being used in animals to help restore function, mobility, and quality of life. Although most commonly used in dogs, physical rehabilitation can be part of a treatment protocol for almost any animal species.

Types of veterinary physical rehabilitation

Veterinary physical rehabilitation includes many techniques that can be used independently or together to maximize the full benefit of treatment, such as:

  • Treadmill therapy — Treadmills improve strength, endurance, and balance in patients recovering from injuries. The treadmill belt propels patients forward, so less effort and fewer muscles are required than walking on their own. Pets struggling after an injury or surgery often can regain their normal gait by re-learning to walk on a treadmill.
  • Underwater treadmill therapy — The buoyancy of water decreases stress on joints, so pets recovering from injuries often can walk on underwater treadmills before they are able to take steps on land. This form of therapy can improve a pet’s range of motion, circulation, flexibility, mobility, and balance.
  • Massage — Many massage techniques relax muscles, reduce stress, improve circulation, and decrease pain in pets—especially in athletic pets, with injuries or arthritis.
  • Passive range of motion — Physical rehabilitation professionals help patients perform passive range-of-motion exercises to prevent loss of function in nonambulatory patients, help patients regain their normal function during recovery, and improve circulation to cartilage for healing.
  • Neuromuscular stimulation — Electrical stimulation can strengthen muscles and reduce muscle wasting in pets who suffer from temporary paralysis or who are unable to use specific muscles for a short period of time. Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) also is used to stimulate the release of pain-relieving substances from nerves.
  • Laser therapy — Low-level laser therapy uses penetrating light to decrease pain and inflammation while improving healing in patients with problems such as arthritis, surgical incisions, and other wounds.
  • Therapeutic ultrasound — Ultrasound units employ sound waves of varying frequency and intensity to increase blood flow and facilitate wound healing when applied to tissues. This therapy can treat tendonitis, pain, muscle spasms, joint stiffness, scar tissue buildup, and wounds.
  • Therapeutic exercises — Therapeutic exercises can be incorporated into every patient’s rehabilitation plan to improve strength, balance, and coordination. A wide range of exercises target specific muscle groups, strengthen core muscles, and rebuild muscle after disuse.

How does veterinary physical rehabilitation benefit pets?

Physical rehabilitation can provide pets a variety of benefits, including:

  • Reduced pain
  • Reduced inflammation
  • Increased range of motion
  • Improved balance and coordination
  • Restoration of normal movement
  • Restoration of normal muscle mass
  • Increased muscle strength
  • Weight loss in obese patients
  • Improved overall quality of life

Which pets benefit from physical rehabilitation?

Veterinary physical rehabilitation can benefit almost every pet suffering from a chronic inflammatory disease or recovering from an injury or wound. Conditions that might benefit from physical rehabilitation include:

  • Degenerative joint disease or arthritis
  • Hip dysplasia
  • Tendon, ligament, and muscle injuries
  • Rear limb weakness
  • Paralysis
  • Recovery from musculoskeletal surgery
  • Traumatic injuries (e.g., being hit by a car)
  • Spinal injury
  • Intervertebral disc disease
  • Nerve disorders
  • Obesity

Ask your AAHA-accredited veterinarian if your pet diagnosed with any of these conditions could benefit from veterinary physical rehabilitation.

How can I find a physical rehabilitation professional for my pet?

Human physical therapists wanting to share physical therapy’s benefits with animals were the first to practice physical rehabilitation on pets. Now, many veterinarians and veterinary technicians are certified to rehabilitate patients in veterinary hospitals. Choose a certified professional who has been formally trained in veterinary rehabilitation therapy and has an intricate knowledge of veterinary anatomy.

If physical rehabilitation has been recommended for your pet, a hospital team member may be certified to provide treatments. If not, ask for a referral to a local AAHA-accredited veterinary physical rehabilitation professional.