Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation for Dogs and other Pets

by Bruce W. Little, DVM

Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation for Dogs and other Pets



During my almost twenty-one years of clinical practice from 1965 when I graduated from veterinary college until 1985 when I sold my practice and took a position with the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), I was not acutely aware of the value in treating dogs or other animals by utilizing the modality of physical therapy (PT). Oh yes, people were swimming horses in pools to build up their muscles and cardiopulmonary systems, and dogs were placed on treadmills to train them for sporting events and agility competitions or to help them recover from the trauma of surgery or injury; but, to send a dog to a physical therapist for specific, basic stretching and motion in the joints and overall balance was not an option that we utilized at that time. Being a seventh son I was a lucky person and escaped debilitating injury and surgery myself that might benefit from physical therapy. I have considered myself lucky much like the Biblical story about Joseph who was sold into slavery by his jealous brothers only to become a favorite of the Pharaoh who appointed Joseph to manage the offerings of the masses, and who saved the entire nation, including his jealous brothers from starvation during the drought that brought severe famine to their country. However, about three months ago, my luck ran out! I woke up one morning with what was diagnosed as a Trochanteric bursitis on my left hip. A bursa is where tendons and ligaments are attached to bone at one end and extend into muscle tissue further down the line. These anatomical elements are what gives the body the ability to move. The bursae contain fluid that allows movement of the tissues without breakage and stretching or pain. Sometimes, these bursae become inflamed and sore restricting movement and the ability to walk. A common treatment for this condition is an injection of cortisone into the inflamed area, followed by several weeks of physical therapy. The cortisone helps to decrease the pain associated with the inflammation and physical therapy re-conditions the tendons, ligaments, and muscles so that normal function can prevail. I am just finishing my eight weeks of PT and I cannot believe how much value physical therapy has brought to my body. And I am not simply talking about the ability to walk again without pain and limited movement. The PT sessions to which I was introduced helped all my body functions immensely by increasing my length of motion and stretching of the tissues that facilitate my body to move. I shall forever be grateful to Dr. Jarrod Schechia, director of physical therapy at Desert Orthopedic Center for Physical Therapy in Las Vegas, Nevada. Not only did Dr. Schechia help to solve my bursitis dilemma with my hip, he and his staff opened my awareness of the immense value physical therapy can do for people.

Fast forward to today after my research of physical therapy and rehabilitation in animals, and I have found that licensed and trained animal physical therapists and rehabilitation specialists prevail in many parts of the animal healthcare industry world-wide. This modality in animal care appears to have blossomed and broadened in the 21st Century as the International Association for Veterinary Rehabilitation and Physical Therapy (IAVRPT) will hold their 10th bi-annual meeting at the University of Tennessee in 2018 meaning it has been in operation about 20 years. I am sure the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) has been in existence longer than 20 years; however, the focus of that group has been human PT. The University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine has both in-house and on-line classes for veterinarians, veterinary technicians, animal assistants, physical therapists, and animal rehabilitation specialists. Many other colleges of veterinary medicine, including the University of Minnesota and Auburn University have physical therapy and rehabilitation departments. I am sure there are more at different levels of development in the United States and across the world.

Although I had communicated with Susan E. Davis through social media, I had never really discussed the value of physical therapy and rehabilitation in animals with her until my introduction to this treatment modality on my own body a few weeks ago. Ms. Davis spent 30 years managing a human physical therapy center at which time she began to pursue her dream of combining physical therapy with her passion for animals. Susan now operates the Joy Care Onsite Physical Therapy business from her home in Red Bank, New Jersey where she treats animals who may have a myriad of health and anatomical issues. Ms. Davis performs her treatments and offers pet owners instructions at the home or physical location of the pet owner. Therefore, the pet does not undergo the stress and mental anguish of a car ride, and suffering an emotional trip to a clinic location. Forming a bond with the pet upon first interactions are paramount to getting the pet to relax and accept the therapy that is being delivered. And equally important is the comfort level of the pet owner who can observe the therapy in their own familiar surroundings. This brings great benefit to all concerned.

Ms. Davis, who has authored the book, “PHYSICAL THERAPY and REHABILITATION for ANIMALS: A GUIDE for the CONSUMER” has also written many articles on physical therapy in animals that were published in recognized magazines and journals. She has written articles on the subject for this web site. Be sure to read them. She treats conditions over a wide spectrum of complexity including arthritis, hip dysplasia, surgical rehabilitation, spinal deformity, herniated spinal discs, sciatic nerve dis-function and many more using physical therapy; therefore, bringing flexibility and range of motion to these animal’s joints and muscles. Susan treats all species of animals from dogs and cats to rabbits and goats. She has a unique understanding of the importance of harmony and balance in the posture and gait of animals. Susan speaks about the base of support (BOS) for animals which is the stance position of how the feet and toes touch the ground. A dog’s center of gravity (COG) is the point in the body where mass is equally balanced or distributed in all directions. In the dog, the COG is at mid chest just behind the shoulder blades. Likewise, in the dog, 60% of the dog’s weight is carried by the front legs and 40% is carried by the back legs. Therefore, a dog with a back-leg amputation seems to move about and do better than a dog with a front leg amputation or permanent injury. The issue of balance and coordination of all moving parts of animals, including humans, is depending upon all those moving parts operating in fluid motion. Once one part fails to do its part, the center of gravity moves toward that point and the animal compensates by bearing more weight on the non-injured leg in the case of a dog. This often, will cause problems with the good or working parts causing joints to become arthritic or muscles to weaken. Many times, it takes repetitive stretching and extension of these muscles and movement within the joints to correct the problem. A physical therapist will design and coach the pet owner how to maximize these exercises to gain the required flexibility and movement to approach normal posture.

Perhaps the best example of normal posture is the racing thoroughbred horse. These beautiful animals when going through the paces of their training or in an actual race exhibit the epitome of a perfectly balanced and fluid moving well-oiled biological machine. From a side view, one can observe the racing thoroughbred as he extends from the tip of his nose to the very tip of his tail flowing behind him. All this is creating the balance of movement that nature provides. If there is injury to any of the moving parts, the horse compensates by bearing more weight on a limb that is not hurting causing a more disheveled gait. The orchestration of all parts moving in unison is lost. Even the jockey must buy in to the fluid motion of the horse in action. If he or she does not participate in the normal movement of the racing horse, the fluid movement is impaired and the horse runs slower or sometimes refuses to run at all. I attended a seminar last week on the hoof of the horse, and this equilibrium was accentuated greatly, that if the horse’s foot is out of balance, the horse is compromised and bad results follow. The adage, “no hoof, no horse” certainly applies.

There is also an old saying, that, “you cannot train an old dog new tricks”. Not necessarily true! I now know if I regularly stretch my muscles and exercise these joints on a regular basis, my ability to maintain balance and movement in my daily activities will be greatly enhanced. “The basics behind maintaining homeostasis in balance is keeping the center of gravity (COG) over the base of support (BOS)”, states Susan E. Davis, PT on her web site. I did not know it before, but the margins in my time allotment each day will include space in the future for exercise and stretching in order that I maintain the best mobility possible for my maximum well-being. I hope all pet owners will do the same for their dogs, cats, and other animals they consider their pets, and exercise them through various methods that are known to benefit their health status. Check with your veterinarian and see if they have a working relationship with a Certified Animal Physical Therapist. Most state Veterinary Practice Acts require that a physical therapist must work on animals in coordination with the animal’s primary veterinarian. You can also go to web sites that provide access to Certified Animal Physical Therapists such as www.physicaltherapists.com to search for a therapist for your pet. Your pets will thank you for it with every lick to your cheek and every wag of its tail.



For more information go to:

Joy Care On-Site Physical Therapy: www.joycareonsight.com

International Association for Veterinary Rehabilitation and Physical Therapy: www.iavrph.org

American Physical Therapy Association: www.apta.org


Bruce W. Little, DVM