The field of veterinary physical therapy has been expanding development has been spurred by the demonstration of its efficacy in humans and animals, an increase in technical advancements among veterinary surgeons and neurologists, higher owner expectations and an increase in pets’ life spans. This rapid growth has led to many misconceptions regarding this field.
“Doc, something is wrong with my Rottweiler. He had knee surgery last week. I was told that he needed to swim after surgery, so I put him in the pool yesterday. He bruised my arms thrashing about in the water, and now he’s having trouble walking.”
“My dog had spinal surgery a year ago, and even though I have been doing some PT that I learned on the internet, he is still dragging his legs.”
These too-common scenarios demonstrate the lack of knowledge regarding professional veterinary rehabilitation. It is seen by some as the last resort, but this is contrary to the core principles of physical rehabilitation which has as its main goal to prevent disuse changes to control pain in order to facilitate proper healing and restore mobility.
Veterinary rehabilitation is not just running on a treadmill, swimming, leash walks or passive range-of-motion exercise. It is much, much more than that. It refers to the use of non-invasive techniques (excluding chiropractic techniques) with the goal of controlling pain and returning the patient to full function. Its goals focus on improving balance, flexibility and strength. This field is classified by the AVMA under the specialty College of Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation. The term physical therapy is used exclusively in the HUMAN physical therapy field. For this reason, when referring to veterinary medicine, we must use the term physiotherapy or rehabilitation instead. A doctor in veterinary medicine must be certified in canine rehabilitation in order to provide rehabilitation services to animals.
The rehabilitation treatment protocol is customized for each patient. It requires a physical therapy diagnosis, specific goals, a detailed plan to reach those goals and follow-up. The rehabilitating doctor develops an exercise program and understands how to get the patient to do it (this is a challenging phase that requires creativity, imagination, experience and a great deal of patience). Modalities used in the veterinary rehabilitation field include hydrotherapy, treadmills, low-level laser, therapeutic ultrasound, electrical stimulation, manual therapies (joint mobilizations, therapeutic stretches, massage, etc.), physiotherapy exercises (therapy bands, cavalettis, physioroll work, balance boards, etc.) and the use of orthosis and prosthesis. The role of veterinary rehab in the use of orthotics and prosthesis requires acceptance and acclimatization of the device by the patient, learning of task skills for the performance of daily activities, and the improvement of balance, coordination, and proprioception while wearing the new device.
The notion of letting the pet use the affected body part when he or she “feels ready” and the reluctance to allow early controlled mobility in conditions where rehabilitation is indicated are concepts of the past. Increased awareness on recent veterinary medical advances is needed in order to prevent misinformation. The performance of physical therapy without guidance and with no knowledge of the discipline can cause serious, permanent damage to the pet. Seek a veterinarian with certification and vast experience on animal rehabilitation. Remember, veterinary specialties such as sport medicine and rehabilitation are developed to further improve your pet’s quality of life.