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Dog Rehabilitation - Level 3

Let’s Get Moving

Learn about 10 common rehabilitation techniques, conditions they’re used to treat and how they can help.
By Phil Zeltzman, D.V.M.

In humans, physical therapy is considered routine after bone or joint surgery. In dogs, we have made huge progress in recent years to provide the best possible care after an injury or orthopedic surgery. This course will walk you (pun intended) through the main rehabilitation techniques used in dogs.

Let’s start with a few reminders. Any dog, whether a family pet, a working dog or an athlete, might get injured, suffer from arthritis or require surgery. The goals of rehabilitation include improving range of motion, speeding up healing, reducing pain and even increasing life span. Rehabilitation is designed to improve function and should never be painful.

The following top 10 modalities should be used under the guidance of a veterinarian or a rehabilitation specialist. Some require knowledge and a good pair of hands, whereas others entail specialized equipment.

Therapeutic ultrasound
An ultrasound machine generates high-frequency waves. Some waves allow veterinarians to look at organs such as the heart or liver. Other waves can warm up tissues, up to 2 inches deep below the skin surface, which increases blood flow and decreases muscle spasms. Therapeutic ultrasound is also used to treat injuries of muscles, tendons and ligaments. One caveat of this modality is that hair can absorb ultrasound waves. If a dog has a thick coat that cannot be clipped, then therapeutic ultrasound may not be as beneficial.

Treadmills can be “land-based” or under water. A land-based or regular treadmill allows walking or running indoors at a predetermined speed. The buoyancy of water allows dogs to walk more easily in an underwater treadmill, even when they may have a hard time walking on land. Dogs recovering from orthopedic or neurologic conditions are excellent candidates for the underwater treadmill.

Massage can decrease swelling and pain by increasing lymphatic and blood flow to the muscles. There are several types of massage techniques, such as effleurage and petrissage, with each having specific goals, such as decreasing swelling in a leg after surgery.

Passive range of motion (PROM)
This involves bending (or flexing) and straightening (or extending) a joint affected by an injury or recovering from surgery. The goal is to improve range of motion and function in an extremity. PROM is often used after joint surgery. For example after knee surgery, the knee could be flexed and extended 10 times, three times daily.

Laser therapy
Some lasers generate heat and can cut through dog skin. Other types, called low-level lasers or cold lasers, are used to decrease pain and inflammation. The ultimate goal is to speed up healing.

Heat and cold therapy
Cryotherapy, or the application of cold, is often used for the first two to three days after surgery or an injury. As long as your dog tolerates it, it could be applied for five to 10 minutes, two to three times daily. The low temperature decreases pain, inflammation and swelling. Ice packs are useful, although a bag of ice cubes or frozen corn conform better to a joint.

Two to three days after surgery or an injury, we can switch to heat therapy. Heat decreases swelling, pain and muscle spasms. It can be used for 10 to 15 minutes, three to four times daily. Many devices are available, such as a “rice sock,” a homemade compress full of uncooked rice that can be heated and applied to the body. They should be warm, never hot. A towel should always be placed between the heat or cold source and the skin to avoid skin burns.

Countless exercises can be used to strengthen muscles and increase range of motion: sit-to-stand, weight-shifting, assisted walks. Walking is a simple and cheap way to exercise: walking up or down stairs, over bars (called Cavaletti rails), up or down an incline.

An acupuncturist places tiny needles at “trigger points,” which are areas of increased sensitivity in a dog’s muscles. There is some controversy about whether acupuncture works or not, but most people agree that it can relieve pain associated with many conditions such as arthritis.

Electrical stimulation
Electrical stimulation, or “e-stim,” entails applying a weak electrical current to a muscle through electrodes stuck to the skin. Depending on the goals, this technique can relieve pain, stimulate muscles or encourage healing.

Therapy balls
Therapy balls come in various sizes, shapes and colors. They can be used to stretch, increase strength or improve balance. Small dogs can be held on top of a ball. The subtle motion of the ball forces the dog to take tiny steps. Larger dogs can have only their front or back feet on the ball, which forces the other legs to takes small steps on the ground.

“A good rehabilitation specialist will perform some of these modalities at the practice (such as the underwater treadmill) and will show some exercises and stretches to do at home (such as passive range of motion)” says Laurie McCauley, D.V.M., veterinarian and Certified Canine Rehabilitation Therapist at TOPS Veterinary Rehabilitation in Grayslake, Ill. “By carefully designing a program tailored to your dog’s needs, a rehabilitation specialist can help you increase your dog’s quality of life, and therefore its longevity.”

Phil Zeltzman, D.V.M., Diplomate ACVS, is a mobile, small-animal board-certified surgeon near Allentown, Pa., and regular DOG FANCY contributing editor. His website is

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Galadriel   Lothlorien, ME

3/9/2011 10:28:04 PM

It would be really nice if we were also taught how to do these treatments.

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kathy   seven hills, OH

3/9/2011 9:16:06 AM

Very informative and learning more about the care of animals too.

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DEB   Southern, LA

2/9/2011 9:53:59 AM

Excellent info!

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