A New Era for Canine Rehab: innovative treatments and new options for dogs and their owners


Recovering from injury is becoming easier with innovative treatments and new options for dogs and their owners.
By By Chris Cox-Evick

Getting Back Up

“It was a freak accident,” recalls Nicole Kelly, a certified veterinary technician and certified canine rehabilitation assistant, regarding an incident in 2012 when another dog ran into Phendi, her 6-year-old female Belgian Malinois. Though Phendi limped only briefly afterward and showed no pain under veterinary examination, Kelly says she hesitated about doing normal things, such as getting in the car.

“My heart sank when I realized her sports career could be over and, more importantly, that I could potentially not make her comfortable doing daily activities,” Kelly says.

Fortunately, Kelly, co-owner of Sublime Canine, a dog training and behavior modification business based in Tucson, Ariz., works as a vet tech and rehabilitation therapist at the Veterinary Specialty Center of Tucson.

“I consulted with my rehabilitation mentor, and we found a laxity in Phendi’s left hip,” she says. “Identifying the problem allowed us to put a rehabilitation plan into place.” Phendi’s treatments included laser therapy, stretching exercises, swimming, and more.

Treatment Options for Injured Dogs

Numerous rehab options exist that work as well for animals as they do for humans, Kelly says. Programs crafted for dogs can include water therapy, such as swimming exercise, pool workouts, and underwater treadmill work; laser therapy; ultrasound therapy; acupuncture; and strength training, such as with an exercise ball designed for dogs.

Each therapy offers special benefits to aid recovery. For example, water therapies provide buoyancy to ease stress on joints and muscles, according to Genia Smith, a licensed veterinary technician, a certified canine rehabilitation practitioner, and a certified rehabilitation therapist for the Advanced Rehabilitation Center at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Mich. Additionally, warm water helps with circulation, joint lubrication, and comfort. Underwater treadmills also have jets to improve circulation, she adds, giving treadmills a unique blend of soothing therapies that Smith says encourages patients to take their first steps after surgery.

Light- and sound-based therapies have also made their way into rehab. “Laser therapy utilizes light energy to initiate biological responses in cells that contribute to tissue recovery,” Kelly says. “It provides analgesic (pain-relieving) effects, accelerates tissue healing, increases circulation, and more.

“Therapeutic ultrasound uses sound-wave energy to improve circulation, decrease inflammation, prevent or break down scar tissue, and reduce pain.” she adds.

Well-known in human rehab, acupuncture for dogs involves inserting fine acupuncture needles into specific points of the body, Kelly says. “It is used to balance body energy, reduce pain, and improve healing,” she adds.

Exercise balls for dogs are made in various sizes from inflatable, tough, resilient materials that dogs push around or stand on to stretch muscles, improve balance, and rebuild strength lost to injury, surgery, or atrophy. Brittany Schaezler, D.V.M., is certified in veterinary medical acupuncture and works for Silverlake Animal Hospital in Pearland, Texas. “Peanut balls are a great way for owners to work on their dog’s strength at home,” she says. Rocker boards offer another gentle but effective workout (that improves strength and mobility) as the dog balances on a wide, low-to-the-ground seesaw.

Is Rehab for Dogs Necessary?

As is the case for people who have suffered traumatic injury, rehab is a must for dogs who need to regain functionality — something Schaezler knows firsthand. “Ticket is a 4-year-old Shetland Sheepdog who came up non-weight-bearing lame on her left rear leg one night after agility practice,” she says. Examination by a specialist confirmed Schaezler’s suspicion: Ticket had a cruciate ligament tear in her stifle, the canine knee, and needed corrective surgery coupled with postoperative rehab.

Cruciate ligament tears occur more than any other canine orthopedic injury, according to Elizabeth Perone, VMD, a certified canine rehabilitation therapist and the medical director at Rebound Animal Wellness Center in Malvern, Pa., a facility specializing in rehabilitation therapies. Whether done in conjunction with rest or surgery, rehab proves vital in getting the leg back to normal, she adds.

“Rehab helps to control pain and accelerate healing,” Perone says. “Rehab also aids in preventing injury in the other rear leg (in cases of cruciate ligament tears), a common occurrence resulting from the strain of the dog leaning on the good leg. The sooner rehab starts, the better the results.”

Schaezler agrees and adds, “Prompt rehab minimizes muscle loss and encourages early use of the injured leg in a safe and controlled way.”
Schaezler also points out that a dog needn’t be a canine athlete to benefit from rehab. “These treatments aren’t just for the performance dog,” she says. “I see a lot of injuries that occur in everyday life, including cruciate tears, neck and back injuries, and shoulder and elbow problems.” Arthritic and obese dogs also benefit from rehab therapies and a conditioning program, Schaezler adds.

Canine Rehab Results

“Research shows that [canine] surgical patients undergoing rehab recover in about half the time as patients not doing rehab,” Smith says. Some dogs are able to avert surgery altogether through appropriate rehab. “Owners often want to try conservative therapy and medical management to possibly avoid surgery,” she says. “I’ve managed some nonsurgical patients for years. But even if a dog needs surgery after rehab, they are in better shape and will likely recover more quickly.”

Rehab typically continues for several weeks, but can go on for years if the dog suffered a nagging injury. “The length of time in rehab depends on the dog’s age, fitness level prior to injury, the severity of the injury or surgery, and what recovery level the owner expects,” Kelly says, adding that a competition dog owner might want the dog in peak condition, while many owners simply want their dog to be OK doing normal activities.
One negative factor to consider is the cost of long-term rehab services, particularly following an already expensive surgery. However, much depends on which therapies prove necessary, based on veterinary recommendations. Generally, the cost of using an intricate machine like an underwater treadmill will cost more than exercise on a peanut ball. Therapies such as acupuncture, laser therapy, ultrasound therapy, and others often fall within a price range most people can afford on a regular basis. The costs vary depending on the treatment, the facility and the time for each session, but prices range from $25 to $150 per treatment, and dogs often require multiple treatments.

If you can’t afford the ideal rehab program, don’t be discouraged, Kelly says. “Some of the most beneficial tools are the owners themselves as they follow a home program designed by their dog’s rehabilitation professional,” she says. “The more engaged and dedicated to the rehab program the owner is, the quicker and more successful the recovery.”

Is it all worth it? Eleven months after her collision with the other dog, Phendi competed with Kelly in an agility trial. “She ran beautifully,” Kelly says. “Tears were flowing down my face after our run, especially when a fellow competitor complimented me on her exceptional jumping style.”


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