It may seem that companion animal rehabilitation has become the latest buzzword in veterinary medicine. In truth, the concept of physical rehabilitation for animals has been around for quite some time. It is only in more recent years that the concepts of human physical therapy have been paired with veterinary medicine in order to create a new specialty.
What exactly do we mean when we talk about animal rehabilitation? The word rehabilitation when applied to wildlife has come to mean the care of sick or injured wildlife with the intent of making them well enough to return to a functional life in the wild. When we use the term rehabilitation in relation to companion animals, we are talking about that field of veterinary medicine that is akin to physical therapy as practiced by humans on humans. Because physical therapy is a protected term in human medical usage, the term physical rehabilitation is used to describe the modalities and activities we undertake in our efforts to restore companion animals back to health.
Among the techniques used are regular physical assessments, using measurements such as joint angles and muscle mass among other things in order to document improvements. A rehabilitationist also evaluates the patient’s weight and diet and employs tools such as therapeutic ultrasound and neuromuscular electrical stimulation to treat specific conditions. Massage therapy, application of heat and cold, use of passive and active range of motion (ROM) exercises, and laser therapy are used to further the healing process.
A rehab specialist will also design an individual therapeutic exercise program (both on land and in water). Many rehabilitation specialists either employ the techniques of acupuncture and chiropractic manipulation or work in conjunction with these practitioners. Managing inflammation and pain are a large part of rehabilitation as well. A little bit of inflammation is necessary to the healing process, but uncontrolled pain and inflammation will lead to limb disuse and scar tissue formation. When we restrict the activity of our animals because they need to heal from a surgery, such as a fracture repair, there are detrimental effects on muscle and bone mass, cartilage health, tendon and ligament flexibility and strength. Rehabilitation can help prevent some of these effects and improve the end result of the surgical procedure.
“Using modern physical therapy techniques, the veterinary team can remain proactive in the goal of rapid return to function for orthopedic ally impaired animals.” Postsurgical Physical Therapy: The Missing Link. Compendium, December 1992 vol.14 no. 12, Robert Taylor, DVM
This quotation was part of an article on rehabilitation written over twenty years ago, and although it specifically refers to postsurgical orthopedic patients, there are many indications for rehabilitation in animals. Rehabilitation can reduce the incidence of postsurgical complications that can be seen with routine procedures, such as quadriceps contracture in young puppy following a fracture repair. Rehabilitation can reduce the time to full recovery and result in improved recovery as well. In dogs that tear a cruciate ligament due to degenerative arthritic changes in the knee, nearly 75% will tear the other ligament in two years or less. It is important to achieve the best possible recovery from the first surgery in terms of both providing a stable leg as soon as possible so as not to stress the opposite knee, but also to provide a strong leg to stand on should the second knee need surgery at a future date.
Rehabilitation can help a dog re-educate neural pathways after disc surgery and improve neurological function. Animals unable to stand can benefit from neuromuscular electrical stimulation of their muscles to prevent severe muscle atrophy. If you have an older dog that is down for weeks due to an injury, the combination of arthritis pain, muscle wasting and injury are tremendous hurdles to overcome so as to be able to rise and walk again. Animals can often exercise in water to a greater degree than they could on land, thus building muscle, endurance and keeping the joints mobile. Or what if your dog was not a candidate for surgery? Rehabilitation may improve the quality of life and function in these patients as well. Nearly 30-40% of all cats and 50-60% of all dogs will develop arthritis at some point in their lives. The tools of rehabilitation can improve existing function in these animals and reduce the need for medication in some cases. In most cases, rehabilitation therapy can prolong the functional time of an arthritic animal.
There are also many debilitating conditions seen in dogs that cannot be managed with medication alone. The degenerative myelopathy of German Shepherd Dogs is an example. In some of these cases, the progression of the disease can be slowed with a program of physical activity as well as diet and supplement management. Some animals need assistance with walking or need to have an area of the body protected or supported. Rehabilitation specialists can fit your pet with slings, splints, carts or protective boots as needed. Far too many of our animals today are overweight. Sometimes weight management must be addressed before a surgery can be undertaken, in other cases weight reduction is needed in order to reduce the chances of joint injury. Controlled exercise programs can help in these cases.
Working dogs (such as service dogs or police dogs) have had a tremendous amount of time and money invested into their training and often have higher physical demands on their bodies than the average companion animal. It is often crucial in these situations that the dog return to the full range of activities or face retirement. And as more and more people are now participating in sports-related activities with their dogs, we are seeing more injuries as well as a greater need for conditioning in these animals. Rehabilitation specialists can help identify areas of weakness in your athletic dogs and design physical activity programs aimed at minimizing injury.
The key to successful rehabilitation is controlled physical activity tailor made for the individual patient. There are basic protocols that have been developed for various injuries and surgical procedures but the actual recovery plan for each individual is based on that animal’s stage of healing and response to therapy. A rehabilitationist works closely with your pet’s referring veterinarian and therapy cannot be rushed. In general, rehabilitation should be preformed for twice as long as the period of restricted activity—so if your veterinarian places your dog on four weeks restriction of activity during bone healing time, then rehab should be performed with increasing intensity over a period of eight weeks. During the early phases of rehabilitation, your pet may need frequent hands on application of specific therapies (such as ultrasound) but your rehab practitioner will also design a program of exercises and therapies for you to implement at home. Success is a team effort. The successes achieved through rehabilitation are often astonishing and definitely worth all the effort. Many people report developing a much closer bond with their pets through the daily therapy sessions. For all these reasons and more, you should consider rehabilitation in your pet’s future.