Short answer: If they’re aging, have had any sort of injury to muscles, tendons, ligaments or bones, have any back problems or neurologic issues, or are doing any sort of sport like agility, conformation, field trials, dock diving, etc, then yes! Rehab would be helpful.
Most people don’t realize that there’s even such a thing as veterinary rehabilitation. It’s now standard in people to start physical therapy after any sort of injury or surgery and physical therapy is now recognized as crucial for athletes. But unfortunately we’re a bit behind the times in veterinary medicine so we’re just starting to recognize that all of the benefits people get from physical therapy would also be helpful for animals and that it should be a standard part of treatment plans for patients just like it is in people. Veterinary rehabilitation takes all the same concepts of human physical therapy and modifies them for our animal patients.
Except the “no pain, no gain” part. When we work with animals our goal is never to cause pain; in fact we try to make the “exercises” actually just fun games where dogs have to walk over some rails or across an uneven surface to get to the treats. Things dogs already do like putting their front feet up on the couch and even their favorite tricks like “shake” and “high five” can be part of a rehab program!
There’s lots of other things we often use as part of a rehab session just like you’d see in your own PT sessions. We can use acupuncture, laser therapy (sometimes called Cold Laser, Low Level Laser Therapy, or photobiomodulation), electrotherapy (things like TENS, electro-acupucture and NEMS) to reduce pain and improve nerve and muscle function, therapeutic ultrasound which uses ultrasound waves to gently warm and relax the tissue relieving pain. Other options some places have include shockwave therapy (sometimes called Extracorporeal Shockwave Therapy) which uses targeted sound waves in the tissue to reduce pain, regenerative medicine using stem cells just like they do in people, as well as manual therapies like chiropractic, stretching, and massage to reduce pain and improve nerve and muscle function. There’s also hydrotherapy and aquatic therapy using swimming or walking on a special treadmill designed to work underwater so they get the benefits of hydrotherapy plus the benefits of the treadmill. The biggest part of rehab is just the therapeutic exercises though. These are how we build up strength, increase flexibility and balance, improve nerve and muscle function, and relieve pain.
Just like with people most of the real work of rehab isn’t what happens at the sessions a couple times a week, it’s what happens in between at home every day. Your rehab vet should give you things to do at home that may include things like icing the injured area, moving the joints, doing some massage and simple exercises like doing “shake”, or walking up a hill a short distance. Of course the exact rehab plan will be different for every patient and condition. And it’s important to know it’s not just for a torn ACL or a slipped disk, it can also have really dramatic benefits for older dogs that may be “slowing down” (remember being old isn’t a disease; if they’re slowing down there’s other things going on and those things can be treated!). Veterinary rehabilitation is also preventative. Just like human athletes (including all you weekend warriors) are supposed to do regular training and stretching to prevent injuries doing all this physical rehabilitation and conditioning can help animals avoid potential injuries.
And it’s not just for dogs! Unfortunately it’s not uncommon for cats to have injuries like broken legs and almost all cats over the age of 12 will eventually suffer from arthritis. These cats can benefit hugely from veterinary rehabilitation! Before you scoff that your cat would never walk in an underwater treadmill remember that there’s lots of other ways we do rehab. Does your cat bat at toys? Well we can use that as a rehab exercise! Does your cat walk on the bed or couch? That can be a rehab exercise! A vet trained in veterinary rehabilitation or other body work like massage, or Tui-na (Traditional Chinese Medicine massage and acupressure) can teach you gentle and easy massage you can do for your cat. Even for rabbits and birds there are lots of things we can do using the techniques and principles of rehabilitation for pets to help improve strength, flexibility, balance, nerve and muscle function to relieve pain and improve health and well-being.
So how do you find a vet with training in pet rehab? You can start with the American Association of Rehabilitation Vets (AARV) https://rehabvets.org/directory.lasso. You can also do an online search in your area. If you’re just looking to get started with some home exercises for fitness you can check out Fit Paws https://fitpawsusa.com/ for lots of videos and ideas on how to start adding exercises with some rehab equipment (there are lots of other brands that make similar style equipment; I have some good options available from Amazon here) to improve strength, flexibility and balance. Stay tuned for some educational material I’m working on for owners to learn some easy massage, stretching and exercises to help their pets too!
So find a vet in your area and get your pet started with rehab to help them heal, reduce pain, build strength and overall be in the best health they can be!