Home Exercises for Dogs With Painful Conditions

Tips to increase agility, mobility, strength and balance.
By Michael Petty DVM, April 2016

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.

Balancing exercises should come after strengthening exercises. Working to maintain good balance is important in the treatment of many painful diseases, especially those that involve nerve dysfunction. Improving balance not only helps prevent serious falls, but the exercise itself can actually restore lost nerve function through retraining of the dysfunctional nerve.

Follow the schedule recommended by me or by your veterinarian if she says to do it otherwise. She knows your dog and I do not. She might know of some medical issue that is not covered here but that could impact the safety of the exercise for your dog.

Don’t forget, you are trying to rehabilitate your painful dog, not put her through boot camp. It is okay to take water breaks and rests as needed throughout the entire session. Start by choosing an appropriate stretching exercise and do it once or twice, followed by two to three of the approved strengthening exercises. Just like we might do for our own workout, do these strengthening exercises as “sets.” In other words, do each of the chosen exercises sequentially for the suggested number of repetitions, never doing more than two to three sets at one sitting. Finish up with a balance exercise if needed. Make it fun and reward your dog with praise and the occasional treat. Don’t make it boring by doing the same exercises day in and day out. Vary them, and if your dog seems to like one over the other, save it for the last exercise of the set or maybe when she is appearing tired so that you can end on a good note. You want her to finish with the memory of rehabilitation as being a fun thing.

The following sections are divided by type of exercise. At the end of the chapter there is a table with a few sample rehabilitation regimens for several painful conditions.

Stretching Exercises

So-called cookie stretches are used to help increase flexibility and range of motion. These stretches are useful for both the canine athlete and the pain patient. None of the stretches listed here put undue stress on any part of the body because the dog himself (with the aid of a cookie under his nose for encouragement) decides on the degree of stretch. I recommend doing all the cookie stretches, not just the ones that seem to focus on a particular body part. Remember how the old song goes, “The hip bone is connected to the thigh bone, the thigh bone is connected to the knee bone …” No matter where an injury is in his body, your dog will compensate by twisting, leaning, weight shifting and so forth so that even the “good” limbs start to experience excessive wear and tear. This means that all areas, not just the problem areas, can benefit from stretching exercises.

Cookie Stretches

When doing the cookie stretches, the treat doesn’t have to be a cookie. Use any food that your dog finds irresistible. A small piece of cheese, bit of lunchmeat or chunk of hot dog will work great. Just remember, it is not the size of the treat, but the smell of it hidden in your hand that will make your dog stretch. You can often get three or four stretches out of a single treat before rewarding. Dogs actually try harder if you don’t reward after every desired stretch—they think they are doing it wrong and try even harder on the next one. Some dogs need to have types of treats alternated in order to keep their interest.

If your dog isn’t the type to take treats out-of-hand, a good trick is to put a dab of peanut butter or canned cheese on a part of his body that you would like him to stretch toward. Most dogs will sit down and work to clean it off, although you too might have a little bit of cleanup to do yourself when he is finished. The dog thinks he is getting a treat, but the work he must do to reach the treat is really just a stretch. Start with one rear foot then repeat with the other foot. Next put some on the elbow and when the first one is cleaned up, repeat with the other elbow.

Adapted from Dr. Petty’s Pain Relief for Dogs: The Complete Medical and Integrative Guide to Treating Pain. © 2016 Michael Petty, published 2016 by Countryman Press. Used with permission.

Photo by A Dogs Life Photography

Article first appeared in The Bark, Issue 85: Spring 2016

Michael Petty, DVM, is past president of the International Veterinary Academy of Pain Management and the co-author of the 2015 American Animal Hospital Association Pain Guidelines. He also is the owner of the Arbor Pointe Veterinary Hospital in Canton, Ohio. 

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