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Rehabilitation Therapy for Pets
Rehabilitation is concerned with restoration of function and prevention of disability. In humans rehab is referred to as physical therapy, or PT. PT delivers improved function, allows patients to resume normal activities sooner, and preserves joint motion and muscle strength.
So how do we apply this to pets?
Well, dogs are active members of our families and our society. They experience similar injuries as humans, and similar wear and tear on bones and joints with age. The same modalities employed in human rehabilitation are used for pets as well. Working athletes such as police dogs, search and rescue, security and assistance dogs are frequently in need of rehab. These dogs are often worth thousands of dollars, and no expense is spared for their treatment.
Other dogs may participate in agility, obedience, fly ball, Frisbee, field trial, hunting, herding, conformation class or Schutzund training. All can cause injury, and all these participants need to be in excellent health to win in competition or perform well.
Family pets may need rehabilitation as well. Arthritis, torn ligaments, spinal disc disease, injuries to nerves or broken bones are all common in canines. Horses are also frequent rehabilitation patients due to their athletic lifestyles.
Signs a dog may need care may be subtle- slowing down, less enthusiasm to perform tasks, difficulty with turns or obstacles, not sitting squarely, or slowness getting up are all early signs of problems. Dramatic signs would be non-weight-bearing lameness, paralysis or severe pain. A pet with any of these signs may need rehabilitation. Although cats would benefit from rehab just as other patients would, they are more difficult to work with in this setting. For quiet cats that will tolerate the poking and prodding of equipment used for rehab, rehabilitation may be possible.
The veterinarian performing canine rehabilitation is at a disadvantage over his or her human physical therapist counterpart for several reasons. The most obvious is that our patients can't talk or tell us where it hurts. They also don't understand what to do or not to do, so we may need to be very clever to get the patient to perform certain movements or exercises, to take it easy for a few weeks, or even to get the pet to hold still during treatments!
There are also big differences in conformation - for example, the injuries a racing greyhound might get would probably be very different form those of a bulldog, and many breeds are prone to specific orthopedic problems - hip dysplasia in large breed dogs, luxating kneecaps in toy breeds, disc disease in dachshunds, for example. The sloping back of a German Shepherd predisposes to hip problems while the straight up and down knees of the Chow Chow make them much more prone to knee ligament tears. Veterinarians performing rehab on pets need to know and understand many variables between breeds and how certain activities, such as running in a harness pulling a sled, affect the body.
The first step in treating a problem is to get a thorough history - what signs does the owner or handler see, what activities can or can't the dog do, when do problems occur. Then a physical exam is done, including checking every bone, muscle and joint for pain, heat, swelling, spasm or atrophy. Each joint is put through its entire range of motion, which is measured and recorded. Muscle/limb girth is also measure. Gait analysis may be done, watching the dog at various speeds going straight, in circles, and up and downhill. Reflexes and nerve function are evaluated as well.
Rehabilitation can help:
Tendon and ligament injuries
Spinal Cord injuries
Degenerative neurological problems
Obesity and poor conditioning
Inflammation and swelling