My career as a physical therapist shifted dramatically 11 years ago after I adopted a dog named Teddy. Teddy came to me with a limp, so naturally, I wanted to help him. The first step was to find out what could be done. Several veterinarians later, the conclusion remained the same: rest and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs). As a licensed physical therapist, I knew there had to be something more; after all, bed rest and medication for the treatment of human conditions had fallen by the wayside decades ago.
After Teddy landed in a vet ER with a horrifying reaction to a prescribed NSAID, I was determined to help him myself. I began by going online to explore the comparative anatomy and biomechanics of canines and humans. During this search, I discovered a whole new avenue I could take to not only help Teddy, but also, to help his species: a canine rehabilitation certification program available for licensed physical therapists and veterinarians.
I enrolled in the program offered by the Canine Rehabilitation Institute (CRI), which is partnered with Colorado State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine. During my course of studies, I gained an appreciation for the differences and similarities in canine and human anatomy. The CRI program confirmed that all the methodology and expertise I had gained in physical therapy school and human clinical practice could transfer nicely to serving our four-legged friends. While there are certainly important differences between the two species, in general, the years of training I undertook to obtain my advanced PT degree proved to be a huge asset to the profession and practice of my animal rehabilitation career.
The goal of animal rehabilitation (aka rehab) is the same as the goal for humans: improve quality of life through restoration of function, increased mobility and reduction of pain. The best way to determine if your dog is a good candidate for rehab is to ask your primary veterinarian. If the vet is unfamiliar with the services these specialized professionals offer, do some research and become better acquainted with your options. Though the specialty practice of animal rehabilitation has been around for nearly two decades in some areas of the world, it is still in its infancy in the United States. Fortunately, the field is rapidly growing.
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Rehab can help any dog with a musculoskeletal or neuromuscular problem, from young puppies to seniors. Some of my canine patients participate in agility, flyball, dock diving, rally, and search and rescue. Others are companions who prefer to hang out and get plenty of nap time. Because conservative methods have proven to be successful a high percentage of the time, the rehab therapist makes every effort to help the patient avoid surgery. When surgery cannot be avoided, post-operative rehab has also been shown to be beneficial for a faster reduction of pain and a quicker return to a more fully functional lifestyle.
PT CAN HELP
• Soft tissue sprains and strains
• Post-operative orthopedic recovery from cruciate ligament repairs such tibial plateau leveling osteotomy (TPLO) and tibial tuberosity advancement (TTA)
• Congenital and degenerative joint disease (dysplasia and osteoarthritis)
• Neurological rehabilitation following spinal decompression surgery (hemilaminectomy)
• Other forms of non-operative neurologic insult, such as fibrocartilaginous embolism (FCE) or spinal cord contusion
Before trying physical therapy with your dog, clear it with your primary veterinarian to ensure that it’s appropriate. There are underlying medical conditions that can rule out PT as an option, so a referral/medical clearance is essential for your dog’s safety.
Your dog’s first visit with a certified canine physical therapist or a rehabilitation veterinarian will involve a fullbody musculoskeletal and neuromuscular evaluation. This specialized, comprehensive, hands-on examination gives the practitioner information needed to develop an individualized treatment plan for your dog’s specific problem(s).
Once the problems have been accurately identified, the practitioner goes to work to address them. A range of approaches is used: skilled manual therapy techniques (joint and soft tissue mobilization), therapeutic strengthening exercises, range of motion/flexibility exercises, and proprioceptive and balance exercises. Additionally, physical agent modalities—“techniques that produce a response in soft tissue through the use of light, water, temperature, sound, or electricity,” according to the California Board of Physical Therapy—may successfully address pain and accelerate healing.
While physical therapy methodology and techniques transfer nicely from the human to the canine patient, canine PT has some important specifics that are beyond the entry-level competencies of human physical therapy programs in the U.S. Similarly, not all veterinary schools include physical rehabilitation as part of their core curriculum. So, finding the right practitioner with the right education is important. Physical rehabilitation rendered by a certified canine physical therapist assistant (PTA) or registered veterinary technician (RVT) is also an option, but these practitioners must be supervised by a qualified PT or DVM with additional training in canine rehabilitation.
State regulatory bodies across the country are currently looking at establishing better laws and regulations to govern this particular specialty. These are needed to allow both non-vet rehabilitation professionals—certified and licensed canine physical therapists—to practice and to determine competency standards for veterinarians.
In California, for example, these regulations have been hotly debated; efforts are being made to allow properly qualified animal physical therapists to practice on their own premises with a veterinary referral. Historically, the California Veterinary Medical Board has wanted to put qualified practitioners under the direct supervision of veterinarians, who may or may not have training in this specialty niche. A legislative task force has been created to work on more appropriate language.
Everyone who’s a consumer of veterinary medical services has a stake in this discussion. Get involved by letting your legislators know that being able to choose a qualified canine physical therapist is important to you. Those who live in California can find out more at caapt.org.