There are some obvious cases where rehabilitation can benefit animals including spinal injury, osteoarthritis, or cruciate ligament rupture. But small injuries can happen during normal life and dogs are generally quite stoic and are very good at hiding subtle injuries. If these injuries aren’t picked up on, then as the dog ages, they will adapt how they move and hold themselves, either making the injury worse or causing other areas of compensatory pain and overuse. Although it can take many years of training to be able to pick up these subtle injuries through assessment and feel, there are ways of noticing them in an animal’s behaviour.
Here are some common signs to look out for to know if rehabilitation could benefit your animal:
Pet has lost ability to jump in and out of car or onto a high surface.
Difficulty going up and down stairs.
Lost enthusiasm for running and playing.
Become weak and/or stiff.
Showing signs of tenderness to touch.
Developed a new and unexplainable behavioural problem.
Become sad, grumpy and less interactive.
But what happens if you notice one or more of these signs? What is involved in rehabilitation and how can it help? There are many aspects to rehabilitation but for this blog, we will focus on the two therapies.
What does physiotherapy on animals involve?
Veterinary physiotherapy involves thorough assessment of an animal’s posture, how they move, and what their muscles and joints feel like in order to discover the areas that require therapeutic intervention and treatment. Often, this includes areas where the animal has compensated in addition to the original injury. Veterinary physiotherapy employs the use of manual therapy techniques, electrotherapies and other therapies, along with a remedial exercise to support and direct an animal’s healing process and recovery. This means that your pets rehabilitation will be specific to them and needs to be as targeted as possible in order to be effective.
What is manual therapy?
Manual therapy includes a number of different techniques that involve the manipulation of soft tissues and joints. Some of the techniques that come under manual therapy include
These techniques can help to reduce muscle spasm and soft tissue discomfort, improve joint range of motion, and reduce soft tissue restrictions and swelling.
Thermal therapies such as cryotherapy (ice packing) and heat therapy can also can provide benefit to patients by reducing swelling (ice), relax tight muscles (heat), and provide a level of pain relief (both). But their application depends on the individual circumstance and stage of tissue/injury healing.
What are electrotherapies?
Electrotherapy is a name used to describe a category of treatment or therapy a physiotherapist might use to aid a patient’s recovery that utilizes electricity in some form. Electrotherapies can be used to help promote tissue healing, reduce inflammation, and provide pain relief. Some of the most popular forms of electrotherapy include:
- NMES (electrical muscle stimulation)
- PEMF (pulsed electromagnetic field therapy)
- therapeutic ultrasound
- LASER therapy
What are remedial exercises?
A remedial exercise plan is used as part of an animal’s rehabilitation to encourage postural and locomotive re-education as well as improving strength and balance. This exercise plan is created specifically for the individual animal based on their current injuries and/or capability. These exercises can incorporate different pieces of equipment including cavaletti poles, balance discs, and resistance bands. Additionally, for many patients receiving physiotherapy, hydrotherapy may also be a very beneficial form of exercise. Combining the two therapies, can provide the best possible outcome for a patient during their rehabilitation from injury and provide the best quality of life for those that are living with long term conditions like arthritis.
What can physiotherapy be started?
This depends on the case but the sooner physiotherapy is started in most cases, the better the recovery, long term outcomes, and quality of life will be (e.g., the sooner it is introduced to an arthritic dog’s management, the better chance there is of trying to slow the progression of the disease). In general, most patients will be physically able within the first 2 weeks following injury but there are some that may have to wait longer, and some surgical cases that need to be started 1-2 days after the surgery. In the case of something like a cruciate rupture, the first 6 weeks’ post-surgery are the most important to include physiotherapy in as this will give a quicker and better recovery. Physiotherapy can often be critical in preventing certain complications, some of which have a significant impact on a patient’s wellbeing. For example, it can help:
- Prevent pressure sores and stiffening of muscles and joints in neurological cases that are unable to move by themselves for long periods of time.
- Prevent things like muscle contractures occurring in cases of bone fractures near the knee/stifle in young dogs that, once they occur, can only be resolved with further invasive surgery.
What is hydrotherapy?
Hydrotherapy is a water-based therapy which allows animals to move more freely in a controlled environment. There are generally two forms of hydrotherapy that are commonly used: the pool, and the underwater treadmill.
How does hydrotherapy benefit animals?
Hydrotherapy utilizes the properties of water to have its therapeutic effects. These properties include:
- Relative density – determines if an object floats in water.
- Buoyancy – upward thrust of water that gives the feeling of weightlessness in water.
- Hydrostatic pressure – the pressure exerted on an object in water (increases the deeper an object is immersed).
- Viscosity and resistance – frictional resistance between water molecules e.g. the resistance between molecules is far higher in water than air, meaning it is harder to move through water than air.
- Surface tension – the tendency of water molecules to stick or adhere together, this is greatest at the surface of the water.
All of these properties can impact a rehabilitation plan in different ways from reducing swelling, providing support for weak patients, reducing the weight placed on the body, giving sensory input, and providing resistance to work against in order to improve strength. Additionally, in hydrotherapy, the water is heated which helps to relax muscles, increase circulation, and can even increase the number of calories burnt!
Other than the obvious, how do the different forms of hydrotherapy differ?
Both forms of hydrotherapy have advantages over one another depending on the individual patient, so visiting a center that has the option of both means that your animal gets the best possible care for whatever injury they’re recovering from.
When swimming, the patient is completely non-weight bearing and their spines are kept in a neutral position, eliminating almost all of the concussive forces on the joints. This means that for patients that are not able to exercise on land for very long due to being overweight or having conditions like arthritis, the pool offers a great opportunity for exercise. For weaker patients, buoyancy jackets can be used to provide additional support. For canine athletes, swimming can be really great way to improve their fitness too.
For certain conditions, particularly after surgery, swimming is generally added in during later stages of the rehabilitation process. This is to make sure that, if the dog is a particularly quick swimmer, their injury is stable enough to withstand more rapid movement.
The treadmill gives the therapist much more control over the environment in terms of the speed of the belt and the height of the water. It provides an opportunity for the animal to move in a relatively normal manner but with less weight on their legs than land. Unlike swimming, the treadmill will always have a degree of weight on the body, but this is not necessarily a bad thing! This can be an excellent way of getting a dog to start placing a leg that they may have been holding up for a while, (e.g., after cruciate ligament surgery).
Changing speed can be another really useful tool. Really slow speeds help patients affected with certain neurological conditions to move in a more coordinated manner but faster speeds are better for conditioning a canine athlete.
Because we have more control over the speed and movement when in the treadmill, some patients can start with this form of hydrotherapy earlier in their rehabilitation program than they could with the pool. This allows for earlier intervention, especially in patients that have undergone surgery. The underwater treadmill also has very good carryover to land based activities. However, similarly to the pool, some animals may need a couple of sessions to get used to walking on the belt before they can be progressed too far.
When can hydrotherapy be started?
As with physiotherapy, this can differ but in general, as long as there are no severe underlying cardiorespiratory conditions, hydrotherapy can usually be started fairly soon in most cases. Although some injuries will have to wait before swimming, as mentioned above, they could be started in the treadmill and progress to the pool at a later stage. The main example to be aware of is post-surgery patients as we tend to recommend waiting until the wound has healed which can take up to 10-14 days.
The decision about which form of hydrotherapy is used for a particular case is usually made by a qualified therapist based on what that individual patient needs in order to achieve the best outcome and return them to a better quality of life.
Author: Matthew Scott
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