Physical therapy for pets got its start in the 1960’s, when racehorse owners and trainers began looking for veterinarians who offered rehabilitation services for injured horses. In the 1980’s, physical therapy for dogs started to gain popularity in Europe, and about 10 years later it spread to the U.S.
Now, physical therapy is one of the fastest-growing areas of veterinary medicine, with veterinary colleges offering instruction and certification in canine rehabilitation. Many veterinary practices also offer physical therapy for all different types of animals, including cats, birds, reptiles, and exotic zoo animals.
Physical therapy, whether for humans or animals, is all about helping patients regain functional ability, muscle strength, coordination, and range of motion. Physical therapy for pets can also help decrease pain and inflammation, speed up the healing process, and improve overall quality of life.
Which Pets Benefit Most From Physical Therapy?
Physical therapy patients can include pets or working dogs (such as police, service, and search-and-rescue dogs) with injuries, gait abnormalities, or anything else that causes them to not walk or function normally. Additionally, older pets with normal, age-related physical changes can also benefit from rehabilitation therapy.
Your pet can likely benefit from physical therapy if he or she is experiencing any of the following:
- Acute or chronic pain, inflammation, or swelling.
- An abnormal gait due to injury or a medical condition.
- An orthopedic condition such as hip dysplasia or elbow dysplasia.
- Osteoarthritis (degenerative arthritis) in the hips, elbows, or spine.
- Back pain or weakness in the hind limbs.
- Behavioral problems, including anxiety, hyperactivity, or insomnia.
- Is healing from an injury (such as a fracture, ligament tear, muscle strain, sprain, or soft tissue injury).
- A decreased quality of life due to pain or lack of mobility.
- Is recovering from orthopedic or spinal surgery, or limb amputation.
- Needs preconditioning and strengthening prior to orthopedic surgery.
- Is obese or overweight.
- Is elderly.
- Would benefit from physical conditioning and strengthening (such as working dogs, or dog athletes who compete in canine agility or flyball).
Injured pets respond particularly well to physical therapy. Injuries can cause decreased stability in joints, stiffness in muscles and tendons, and loss of muscle control. Research studies show that a pet’s muscles begin to atrophy (shrink) within just 48 hours of sustaining an injury. If therapy isn’t started quickly, the injured area will also begin to swell due to lack of movement.
Although injured pets aren’t allowed to participate in normal activities for awhile, physical therapy can begin right away.
Physical therapy has been shown to produce the following results in pet patients:
- Prevention of muscle atrophy
- Improved circulation
- Pain reduction
- Increased muscle mass and strength
- Improvement of posture and balance
- Increased mobility and flexibility
- Body fat reduction in overweight patients
- Faster healing times after surgery or injury
- Enhanced performance in dog athletes
- Improvement in overall quality of life
Physical therapy for pets provides safe, controlled activity during the recovery process, and it’s also been shown to have a positive psychological effect – on both patients and their pet parents!
Services Offered In Physical Therapy
The services offered by veterinary physical rehabilitation facilities are often very similar to those found in human medicine, and usually include the following:
- Therapeutic exercises for muscle strengthening.
- Hydrotherapy (swimming and the use of an underwater treadmill; resistance created by the water cushions joints).
- Balance training using physio balls, wobble boards, and therapy bands (this is particularly helpful for pets who’ve suffered a stroke).
- Ultrasound (increases circulation and breaks down scar tissue).
- Thermal (heat) therapy (decreases pain and inflammation).
- Cryotherapy (uses ice to reduce swelling and inflammation).
- Massage/Myofascial release (relieves painful trigger points and muscle spasms and improves circulation).
- Low-level laser therapy (reduces swelling and promotes wound healing).
- Transcutaneous Electrical Neuromuscular Stimulation (TENS) and Neuromuscular Electronic Stimulation (NMES). These machines use low-voltage electrical stimulation to cause muscle contractions, which releases endorphins and helps control pain signals in the body.
- Joint mobilization and stretching (restores range of motion).
- Coordination exercises that use obstacles to force the patient to shift weight quickly (these are helpful for patients with spinal cord injuries).
- Gait retraining techniques.
- Orthotics (the use of custom-created casts to help stabilize limbs).
- Client education and home exercise programs.
- Cart consultations (for patients paralyzed in the hind legs who require the use of a custom cart to get around).
- Athletic conditioning
Getting Started With Physical Therapy
All physical therapy treatment begins with a referral from a licensed veterinarian, along with a complete copy of the patient’s medical records (including previous illnesses, vaccination status, and any medications the patient is currently taking).
A word of advice: great care should be taken when choosing a therapist. Not all states have regulations in place for veterinary rehabilitation therapy, so it’s important to choose a facility that only employs licensed Physical Therapists (PT’s) who have been certified in canine rehabilitation. These therapists will also have the titles “CCRT” (Certified Canine Rehabilitation Therapist) or “CCRP” (Certified Canine Rehabilitation Practitioner) after their names.
During the first visit, the therapist usually meets with the patient and pet parent to evaluate the patient and set goals for rehabilitation. The therapist then creates a customized program specific to the pet’s needs. The length and number of sessions will depend on the nature of the injury or condition. Treatment can range from just 2 or 3 sessions total, to multiple weekly visits that can span a period of several months.
All sessions are designed to be pain-free, and therapists take special care to accommodate the healing process. Treatment sessions are usually done without the pet parent present, since most pets benefit more from therapy if they’re not distracted.
Progress is documented after every session, and pet parents are given “homework” consisting of specific exercises to be done at home. Some facilities even provide pictures or video clips of the sessions so pet parents can see how their pet did during therapy.
The cost of physical therapy for pets varies greatly, and depends on the individualized treatment plan, the equipment being used, and the experience of the therapist. Many pet insurance companies cover up to 90% of physical rehabilitation costs. If your pet needs physical therapy and you have pet insurance, be sure to consult with your insurance provider ahead of time to confirm what’s covered.
Most pets undergoing physical therapy adapt very well. They actually come to associate their therapy sessions with fun things, making them eager to come back for more!
A Promising Area In Veterinary Medicine
For over 80 years, physical therapy has helped human patients recover more quickly from injury and surgical procedures. Now, as physical therapy for pets is becoming more available, these same techniques are being used with great success in animal patients – even more so, since some research suggests that animals tend to heal faster than people do.
Pets of all species, ages, and breeds who are experiencing chronic pain, muscle weakness, arthritis, or injury can benefit from physical therapy. The growing popularity of canine sports, such as flyball and agility, are also adding to the need for physical rehabilitation for dogs who compete in these events.
Physical therapy for pets is an exciting area of veterinary medicine that holds tremendous promise for restoring the health and mobility of our physically compromised pets, reducing their pain and discomfort, and ensuring them a better quality of life!
Have you ever had a pet who underwent physical therapy treatment? Please tell us about it in the comments below!