Dogs with pain or injuries benefit from veterinary rehabilitation.
Just as physical therapy clinics for humans have popped up across the country over the past several years, so, too, has the field of veterinary rehabilitation grown. Still fairly young, the specialty is unknown to (and perhaps not completely understood by) many consumers and even veterinarians.
Veterinary rehabilitation uses many of the same modalities and techniques for animals as physical therapy does for humans; the two are similar in almost every way. However, the specific term “physical therapy” is legally reserved in most states for use by licensed physical therapists and for licensed physical therapists who work with humans only. The term is frequently used erroneously in canine rehab.
The American Association of Rehabilitation Veterinarians (AARV) was formed in 2007 to educate veterinary surgeons, veterinarians, and the public about the role this specialist can play in our dogs’ health. The organization defines a physical medicine and rehabilitation (PM&R) veterinarian as a doctor of veterinary medicine who has advanced training, expertise, and experience in the management of pain and loss of function through injury and illness.
What services and modalities should we expect a rehab vet to offer?
Because a good portion of what is going on during rehab is working on building strength, flexibility, proprioception, and range of motion, the means of addressing those issues will vary depending on who is administering treatment.
For example, some veterinarians frequently use acupuncture and chiropractic. Other practitioners use those modalities and/or laser, ultrasound, electrical stimulation, hydrotherapy (underwater treadmill and/or swimming), massage, physio balls, wobble boards, land treadmills, cavaletti, weights, Thera-Bands, Chinese herbs, homeopathy, and nutrition.
What are the typical goals of rehab and what are some examples of injuries or conditions we might see treated?
With hip dysplasia, we can use rehab to help with strength and flexibility. We find that we’re able to put off using pain medication and surgery to the extent that we’re seeing a lot of cases that would have needed surgery, now don’t need it.
If you know your dog has hip dysplasia early on, and you manage her, you can begin work early to prevent the hind end from becoming weak, and keep the pain at bay – pain that we often see in the low back and the muscles around the hips. Rehab can keep those areas loose, flexible, and strong.
After anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) surgery, we used to see protocols that called for the dog to start walking for five minutes one week, then 10 minutes the next, and so on. There wasn’t anything else, and particularly nothing to address stretching and strengthening.
Now we can prescribe passive range-of-motion exercises to do at home; light weight-bearing exercises to practice early on; and starting hydrotherapy anywhere from two to eight weeks post-op. And sometimes we see the use of lasers, electrical stimulation, or ultrasound to help with tissue healing. With rehab, animals get better a whole lot faster; they return not just to functionality, but to the condition in which they were in, pre-injury.
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