Physical Therapy for Pets

by Barbara Foster

Our pets take care of us in many capacities. Humans who have a companion animal generally have better cardiovascular health, a decreased likelihood of depression, reduced stress, and more social interactions. Pets have a tangible impact on our overall well-being. In recent years, doctors and physical therapists have even used pets to help humans rehabilitate in what's called animal-assisted therapy, or AAT. They are now a staple for many therapies and treatments. Dogs, cats, horses, and other animals tend to be very good for our well-being, but what about them? Sometimes, our pets need the rehabilitation services that humans have the luxury to have access to.

Physical therapy for pets, or animal rehabilitation, is about applying the basic principles of physical therapy for the increased function, mobility, and overall quality of life of animals. Most commonly used on dogs, this kind of therapy is known to help decrease chronic pain and help rehabilitate injured pets. With proper knowledge of anatomy, this practice can be applied to many different kinds of pets, from dogs to horses to cats to rabbits to even birds. The overall benefits of this treatment have been recognized by many veterinarians, but there has been recent growth in this field to try to help dogs heal. That field is also known as canine physical therapy.

Common ailments it treats include joint, spinal cord, and soft tissue injuries, osteoarthritis and pain, inflammation, hip and elbow dysplasia, and other conditions from old age. It can help with most neuromuscular or muscular dysfunctions resulting from surgery, overuse of the limb, or chronic pain. Because dogs and cats can't tell us that they're in pain, it may be hard to tell when they need help. If a veterinarian has diagnosed your pet with any of these issues, it may be time to have a conversation with them about these options. However, there may be other indicators of your pet's need for treatment. For instance, if an animal walks with an unusual gait, that can sometimes be an indication of the kind of pain physical therapy can help with. Also, if a pet is obese, physical therapy can be used to ease the dog or cat into regular exercise without hurting it.

These ailments can be dealt with by using a variety of different physical therapy treatment options. The most commonly employed options include massage and passive range of motion (or PROM). This is somewhat like passive exercise, where a professional moves the joints and muscles of the animal to promote a higher range of motion. Like physical therapy for humans, physical therapy for pets also can employ a variety of different exercises to promote balance and coordination. One of the most helpful forms of therapy (and the cutest to watch) involves using an underwater treadmill, which allows injured pets to explore the full range of motion while running without the damaging pull of gravity. Electrical stimulation, where low currents stimulate muscles to combat pain, is also sometimes used.

Because pets cannot communicate like humans through speaking, it's recommended to find someone who is clearly a professional. Pet physical therapists require intricate knowledge of that animal's anatomy along with years of expertise. If you plan to help your dog, the physical therapist in question should either be a CCRP (certified canine rehabilitation practitioner) or a CVT (certified veterinary technician) under the supervision of a CCRP. Regardless of who you go to, be sure that the practitioner is recommended and referred by your veterinarian. Few colleges offer these specific programs, but due to the growth of this field, hopefully, many more will learn this science and art.

Learn more about physical therapy for dogs, cats, and horses with the resources below: