Physical Therapy for Dogs: Can It Help Your Senior or Injured Pet?

Posted by Dr. Elizabeth Racine on

Physical Therapy for Dogs: Can It Help Your Senior or Injured Pet?

Perhaps your dog is a senior who is starting to slow down a bit, or maybe he has just experienced a traumatic injury.  Maybe you’ve been told that your dog is at risk for orthopedic problems unless he loses a few pounds.  Whatever your dog’s history may entail, canine physical therapy may be able to help.  Physical therapy and rehabilitation is a rapidly growing field in veterinary medicine and many dogs can benefit from these treatments.  Before embarking on a physical therapy journey with your dog, learn how these treatments can improve your dog’s quality of life and how to find a veterinary rehabilitation professional in your area with these tips.

What is physical therapy for dogs?

If you or a loved one have ever attended physical therapy sessions, you’re likely already familiar with the concept.  During physical therapy, a rehabilitation professional will show how to perform exercises and stretches specific to your area of injury.  These exercises are designed to strengthen muscles, improve flexibility, increase circulation to the area, and reduce pain.  Often, you’ll also be given a series of exercises to practice at home.  Some physical therapists will also administer other treatments, such as massage, hydrotherapy, or therapeutic ultrasound.

Many pet owners are surprised to learn that physical therapy for dogs is quite similar to physical therapy for humans!  During your dog’s physical therapy session, a veterinary rehabilitation professional will typically walk you and your dog through some strengthening and passive range of motion exercises.  This may take a little longer than a human physical therapy session – because your dog doesn’t understand what is happening, patience, training, and lots of positive reinforcement are used to make sure he gets the idea and enjoys the experience!  Physical therapy for dogs may also include other rehabilitation therapies, such as:

  • Underwater treadmill
  • Swimming
  • Acupuncture
  • Therapeutic laser
  • Therapeutic ultrasound
  • Balance board exercises
  • Ice or heat therapy
  • Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS)
  • Neuromuscular electrical stimulation (NMES)
  • Hydrotherapy
  • Veterinary spinal manipulative therapy

Which canine conditions can benefit from physical therapy?

Veterinary rehabilitation and physical therapy is a field that is still very much in its infancy.  We are still learning new techniques and new ways to apply these therapies.  To date, physical therapy is primarily used to manage traumatic injuries, joint disease, neurological disorders, and orthopedic conditions.  Common conditions treated by veterinary rehabilitation professionals include:

  • Osteoarthritis
  • Cranial cruciate ligament rupture
  • Hip and elbow dysplasia
  • Degenerative myelopathy
  • Intervertebral disc disease (IVDD)
  • Patellar luxation
  • Fractures
  • Amputations
  • Neuropathies
  • Obesity

In addition to treating and managing medical conditions, physical therapy is also a great way for healthy dogs to build strength and flexibility.  Regular exercise and strengthening can be a useful tool to prevent or delay the onset of many common orthopedic conditions, particularly in breeds and individuals predisposed to such problems.  Canine athletes and working dogs may also benefit from physical therapy, which can help improve performance and speed recovery.

How do I find a dog physical therapist?

Unfortunately, in most states, there are few if any rules governing veterinary physical therapy.  This means that anyone can call themselves a dog physical therapist, even if they do not have the training and knowledge to provide such therapies safely.  Before choosing a physical therapist for your dog, ask the professional about their training and credentials.  Common credentials in veterinary physical therapy include Certified Canine Rehabilitation Therapist (CCRT), Certified Canine Rehabilitation Practitioner (CCRP), and Veterinary Massage and Rehabilitation Therapist (VMRT).  Veterinarians can also become board certified Diplomates of the American College of Veterinary Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation (DACVSMR), which requires extensive additional training and qualifications to complete.  For further help finding a dog physical therapist in your area, check the directory provided by the American Association of Rehabilitation Veterinarians, or ask your veterinarian for recommendations in your area.

Can I perform dog physical therapy at home?

Make sure you consult your veterinarian before attempting physical therapy on your dog at home.  Depending on your dog’s condition, some movements and exercises could potentially exacerbate the problem and cause pain for your dog.  Your veterinarian can demonstrate some simple exercises, such as passive range of motion exercises, which you can safely perform at home.  Your dog can also participate in low-impact exercises such as walking or swimming, which is a great way to improve fitness and burn calories.  If you and your dog are working with a physical therapist regularly, you may also be given some additional exercises to practice at home.

What else can I do to help my dog?

Physical therapy is an excellent tool for managing many common orthopedic and neurologic conditions.  However, to achieve the best possible outcome for your dog, a good treatment plan will incorporate multiple treatment modalities to ensure your dog is comfortable, pain-free, and maintaining a good quality of life.  In addition to physical therapy, your veterinarian may recommend prescription medications such as steroids, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), or pain medications to help keep your dog comfortable.  Supplements such as glucosamine, chondroitin, CBD oil, and fish oil may be recommended for many orthopedic conditions.  Your dog may also benefit from other alternative treatment modalities such as acupuncture, therapeutic laser, or spinal manipulation.  Before starting any new treatment or medication for your dog, consult your veterinarian to ensure that the therapy will be safe and effective for your dog’s particular condition.  Although it can be difficult to see your dog in pain, never give your dog any over-the-counter medications or human medications unless directed to do so by your veterinarian, because many of these products can be toxic to dogs.

Physical Therapy for Dogs: A World of Possibilities

Whether your dog is a senior with mobility issues or a puppy just beginning his training, physical therapy can provide many opportunities to improve strength, flexibility, and endurance.  To find out whether your dog can benefit from physical therapy, talk to your veterinarian or visit the American Association of Rehabilitation Veterinarians website to learn more.

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