Not all exercises are appropriate for every condition, so it is important that your dog receive an accurate diagnosis prior to starting any of these rehabilitation exercises. It is equally important to make sure that your veterinarian gives the okay for your dog to start these exercises. Some are vigorous in nature and not compatible with certain medical conditions such as, for example, congestive heart failure.
Treatment of certain conditions, especially serious ones, through exercise and physical manipulation should only be carried out by a physical therapist who has received additional training for dogs or by a rehabilitation therapist who has either completed a rehabilitation certification course or is board certified in rehabilitation. But there are many exercises that you, as your dog’s caregiver, can do at home to lower your dog’s pain and to improve his quality of life. Most of these exercises are aimed at stretching, general core and limb strengthening, and balance. Doing these home exercises can be both fun and rewarding for you and your dog. But before we start on the specific exercises, you need to understand the “why” of rehabilitation and understand some basic precautions.
All dogs in every stage of life need to maintain their strength. Even dogs with physical limitations brought on by surgery, pain or old age require exercise for health, strength and maintenance of normal body functions. To carry out a successful exercise program you, as the caregiver, must be committed to finding the time and patience to work with your dog. In addition, the caregiver must take the time to understand the precautions that go with the individual exercises and the start-up of any strengthening and conditioning program.
Following are some guidelines for keeping things safe:
Prior to starting any increase in physical activity it is important to make sure that your dog does not have any medical condition that might make it dangerous to do so. Have a discussion with your veterinarian before starting your dog on any exercise program and get the okay before proceeding. If your dog is already being treated for a chronic painful condition and recently has been examined, this might only require a phone call to your veterinarian.
Always show your veterinarian the specific exercises you have in mind for your dog, whether you got them from here or elsewhere, to make sure they are not contraindicated by any existing medical condition. For example, one strengthening exercise that I call “sit to stand” could be an unsafe practice for a dog with intervertebral disk disease.
Always begin with stretching. This both readies the muscles for exercise and lets your dog know that something is about to occur. Stretching is an important part of starting a physical activity for dogs that have experienced a loss of function and muscle mass. The act of stretching fires off nerve endings in the muscles, preparing them for the coming activities. Stretching also helps warm up the muscles, possibly averting damage from the exercises that follow. Finally, stretching tender limbs and joints on your dog, if done properly, can build trust between you and your dog as you prepare to do some of the harder (and from your dog’s point of view possibly scarier) strengthening and balance exercises.
If it seems like it hurts, stop. Review the instructions on how you are supposed to perform a specific exercise. If you are doing it correctly, and it still hurts, strike that stretch or exercise off the list until you next see your veterinarian and get his opinion.
Strengthening exercises should come after stretching exercises. Improvement of muscle strength helps a dog to maintain proper posture and proper distribution of weight to all four legs. A leg weakened by non-use because of pain may never be used again even if the original cause of the pain is long gone. The muscles, which were underutilized during treatment and recovery, may no longer have the strength for the tasks they were designed to do. Even short injuries and recovery times can cause muscle weakness. One study demonstrated significant muscle atrophy after only three days of strict cage rest.