by Barry B. Burtis D.V.M.
Physical rehabilitation therapy can improve the quality of life of companion pet animals by enhancing their recovery from orthopedic and neurological conditions, reducing and managing chronic pain and promoting health and wellness. Cain, a rottweiller, recovering from surgery to repair the torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right stifle (knee joint) was one such patient. Gerda was another, a dachshund who had back surgery when she became semi-paralysed as a result of vertebral disc material compressing nerves in her spinal cord.
It is very important to properly assess pain and discomfort in any animal about to undergo physical rehabilitation. Excessive discomfort may prevent or slow progress during treatment but measurement of pain is difficult in animals because they cannot verbalize the level of pain they are experiencing. Proper evaluation of the patient will depend on skilful and careful assessment by all the members of the team who will be involved in the physiotherapy.
Therapeutic exercise is perhaps one of the most valuable methods used in canine physical rehabilitation. The goals of such exercise are to improve active pain-free range of motion in joints, improve muscle mass and muscle strength, increase balance and performance with daily function, and improve aerobic capacity. Other goals would be to prevent further injury and to reduce weight and lameness. The equipment required for therapeutic exercise is relatively inexpensive and similar principles apply to a variety of individuals and conditions. Also, therapeutic exercise programs designed for the home environment provide an opportunity for owners to become actively involved in their pet's rehabilitation.
Common activities include standing exercises, controlled leash activities, stair climbing, treadmill activity, "wheel barrowing" (for forelimb activity) and "dancing" (for rear limb activity). Other activities include jogging, sit-to-stand exercises, pulling or carrying weights, walking and trotting across cavaletti rails and playing ball. Balance balls or rolls also may be used. As the animal improves and tissue healing progresses, the exercise plan is altered to match the animal's progress and appropriately challenge the involved tissues. The intensity of an exercise may be increased or reduced by changing the duration of time that an animal performs an exercise, the frequency that an exercise is performed and the rate of speed that a particular exercise is performed.
At the appropriate time in his healing, Cain had such a group of exercises designed for him. He thrived on the program. It undoubtedly sped up his surgical recovery and helped him overcome his lameness. Continuing with some of these activities will assist with weight control as he ages and help to reduce arthritic change in the now more susceptible right knee. I'm sure he also very much enjoyed the extra bonding time with his owner who assisted with his exercise program. Therapeutic exercise routines should be monitored at regular intervals by a trained individual that is familiar with the patient and the exercise techniques.
Water has many useful features for rehabilitation, including thermal effects, buoyancy, increased hydrostatic pressure, cohesion and turbulence. The benefits of aquatic exercise are many. Patients with poor balance can stand because buoyancy will help keep them from falling and patients with weak muscles can move body parts. Aquatic exercise should begin only after incisions have healed and activity must be supervised at all times.
Gerda began her aquatic therapy wearing canine life preservers and her therapist was with her to provide additional support. As her recovery progressed, an underwater treadmill was used to encourage active rear limb use and yet still have the buoyancy effects of the water. Underwater treadmills are a relatively recent addition to aquatic therapy. Depending on the water height, patients may walk partially submerged or may swim. Gerda continues to make good improvement toward complete return of normal function in her rear legs.
If you have questions about physiotherapy for pets, ask your veterinarian.