By Susan E. Davis, PT

When I say, “I am a Physical Therapist,” most people nod in recognition. When I add, “with dogs and other animals,” I get the ‘look.’ It’s the one with raised eyebrows and wide eyes, followed by the question, “You do what?”

Initially, it’s hard to wrap your brain around the concept of a dog needing physical therapy, but when you think about why people need it, this makes sense.

Caring for People and Dogs

I spent the first 30 years of my career as a Physical Therapist for people, working in hospitals, nursing homes, and office settings. It offered me a unique perspective on the ways these two types of patients respond to physical therapy.

The contrast has been fascinating. Human patients tend toward seizing control of treatment and away from yielding to a therapist. Verbal communication can also become a barrier: though an advantage in obtaining the medical history and description of symptoms, it can hinder the person’s ability to relax.

Canine patients are completely different. I often get the phrase from pet owners: “you must like them better because they can’t complain.” Though a valid point, it presents a challenge in finding out what’s wrong and where it hurts, similar to a pediatrician caring for an infant.

The upside is trust. Dogs and other species are remarkable in their ability to trust, once they sense your intentions are inherently good. It only takes a few minutes for dogs to figure out why you are there and what you’re trying to do for them. Once that occurs, they accept every bit of care you provide.

Timmy and Susan E. Davis, PT

Timmy and Susan E. Davis, PT

What is Physical Therapy for dogs?

It is very similar to PT for human beings! Physical Therapy dates as far back as ancient times, from Hippocrates using massage and water treatment to European schools of “gymnastics” helping those with movement problems and pain. In the United States, PT has existed since the early 1900s when therapists worked in hospitals to help patients afflicted with polio.

Modern day PT is the science of applying physics and biomechanics to patients with injury, illness and loss of function. Physical Therapists work with patients through all realms of the health care spectrum, from wellness and prevention, through illness and injury, and quality of life care.

Physical Therapy transitioned into veterinary medicine in the 1920s and increased in the 1960s with equines: treating athletic and thoroughbred horses in the racing and show fields. In the late 1990s, veterinarians and physical therapists began to recognize the possible benefits of therapy to other animals, primarily canines. The first educational programs for canine therapy (also called ‘canine rehabilitation’) appeared in 2000, offered at veterinary schools to licensed veterinarians, physical therapists, and vet technicians.

Canine Rehabilitation

The term “physical therapy” is protected in many states, and can only be used when a licensed physical therapist performs the service. This protection spawned the new term “canine rehabilitation.”  Dog owners seeking these services will find “Certified Canine Rehabilitation Practitioners” (CCRP), often veterinarians receiving specialized training in this field, as well as licensed physical therapists that may or may not use the ‘CCRP’ designation, depending on their state’s rules and regulations. In that case, the designation will simply be “PT”, but they will have the additional training required to work with dogs.

In recent years PT expanded from use in equine and canine species to include felines, farm animals, exotics, etc. You may wonder where it fits in the veterinary paradigm: is it holistic or traditional? Physical Therapy is a part of traditional Western health care. Many veterinarians call it ‘complementary’ as it is not meant to be used as a substitute for primary medical care, but as an adjunct. The best practice is to provide PT concurrently with veterinary care along with clear communication.

Common Forms of PT Intervention:

  1. Initial Evaluation, assessment, setting goals, prognosis, treatment planning.
  2. Physical Modalities: cold laser, electrical stimulation, massage, ultrasound, extracorporeal shock-wave therapy.
  3. Therapeutic Exercises: range of motion, stretching, joint mobilization, traction, strengthening, and swimming.
  4. Use of equipment: underwater and land treadmills, rails and poles, Physio-Rolls and Balls, balance and rocker boards.
  5. Adaptive devices: wheeled carts, splints, wraps, and braces. Therapists help measure, fit and make recommendations.

Physical Therapy helps these conditions:

  1. Orthopedic: hip dysplasia, cruciate ligament tears, patellar luxation, fractures, tendonitis, wounds, sprains, and strains.
  2. Neurological: degenerative myelopathy, intervertebral disc disease, Wobbler Syndrome, fibrocartilaginous embolic myelopathy, vestibular disorders.
  3. Medical: oncology, amputation, metabolic diseases, geriatrics, arthritis, respiratory disease.
  4. Overuse syndromes in sports, such as dog conformation, agility, earth and working activities.
Jasmine in Physical Therapy

Jasmine in Physical Therapy

What to Expect

In the vast majority of cases, your dog will do well with PT, provided by a qualified and caring individual. Physical Therapy can be used successfully in all realms of the veterinary healthcare paradigm from wellness and injury prevention to acute care and rehabilitation, for maintenance of function with chronic conditions or as supportive during end of life care.

Dogs absorb the benefits of PT rapidly and usually begin to respond within the very first encounter.  What may take four to six PT sessions for a person can be accomplished in two to three visits with a dog. Dogs hold improvement longer and don’t need appointments scheduled as frequent. For example, a person might attend PT two to three times per week, but canine sessions are just once per week or every other week.

Emotional and Social Benefits of Physical Therapy

The benefits are beyond the physical, and they enhance a dog’s emotional and social well-being.  When animals start feeling better, they are more likely to interact with the family, bring their toys out to play, and resume their favorite job of protecting you and patrolling the property.

I experience this weekly, providing PT in a local shelter, where we see dogs rescued from abuse that have lost their ability to physically function due to psychological trauma. I am often called in on these cases to offer a different kind of PT approach using a quiet voice and gentle soothing touch while performing massage or light stretching. It can unlock anxiety and help the animal regain their confidence and motivation to move, function and interact. In turn, they become more adoptable.

Thankfully, Physical Therapy isn’t just for people any longer! Now dogs and other animal species can reap the benefits of this valuable field, to gain optimal health outcomes.

Susan E. Davis is a New Jersey licensed Physical Therapist with over 38 years of clinical experience. Her current practice is Joycare Onsite, LLC and she provides physical therapy to pets in their homes. Davis is the author of Physical Therapy and Rehabilitiation for Animals: A Guide for the Consumer, available on Amazon and www.joycareonsite.com.

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