By Sherry Warner
Although it’s been around a long time in the human world, rehabilitation therapy is just picking up speed in the veterinary community. In fact, in 2010, veterinary sports medicine and rehabilitation was officially recognized as a specialty by the American Board of Veterinary Specialities.
“Rehab therapy used to be practiced at a very rudimentary level,” says Dr. Terri Schiller, DVM, a certified canine rehabilitation therapist at Calgary’s Western Veterinary Specialist and Emergency Centre. “It’s really become a very sophisticated specialty now and we do an exceptionally better job at it.”
Rehabilitation therapy is a great way to help with function, mobility, controlling pain and increasing performance in our canine athletes and in our pets, says Dr. Laura Romano, DVM, a certified canine rehabilitation therapist who practices at Marda Loop Veterinary Centre in Calgary.
Dr. Schiller describes rehabilitation therapy as a way to maintain and restore movement associated with degenerative conditions, injuries, post-surgical patients and patients with neurological disorders.
Rehab therapists have some great tools in their rehab toolkit to help their patients. Some of the best tools we have for our patients are manual therapies such as massage, range of motion exercises and stretching, says Dr. Schiller. “Things we physically put patients through in order to get tissues moving.”
There are also several physical tools, the most common being laser therapy, electrical neuromuscular stimulation and underwater treadmill. But even with all the rehab equipment, no one gets to go home without some therapeutic exercises, says Dr. Romano. “There isn’t a good rehabilitation therapy program without some exercise.”
Some of the more common health issues both doctors see in their practices are anterior cruciate ligament disease (ACL or torn knee ligaments); developmental abnormalities such as elbow disease; soft-tissue injuries; arthritis, especially in geriatric patients; and neurological disease such as intervertebral disc disease (bad discs that put pressure on the spinal cord or spinal nerves causing pain and disfunction; and fibrocartilaginous embolism or spinal cord stroke, which is a blockage in a blood vessel in the spinal cord.
“I have a very large geriatric population that has maintenance rehab on an ongoing basis,” says Dr. Romano. “I have the most fun with these guys because the owners are just so thrilled that we can give their pups a little spark of life and have them enjoying their walks at the park again.”
Rehabilitation therapy is often use for post-op patients, continues Dr. Romano. She explains that rehab makes the post-op period much more sane, especially for young, energetic dogs who are chomping at the bit to get going after surgery. “Rehab is a way for people to have a very controlled return to function and keep their dogs psychologically a little more sane.”
Post-op patients who have had surgery for joint problems, fractures and neurological issues can all benefit from rehab. For instance, a dog that was paralyzed and had surgery to alleviate pressure on the spinal cord will need to relearn how to walk, says Dr. Schiller. “We play a big role in the recovery of these dogs.”
Every patient is assessed to determine what their injury or limitations are and then an individual rehab program is developed for that particular pet.
Laser therapy works by stimulating a cellular response to the light of the laser that produces energy within the cells, which is very important for healing. “If we have a muscle spasm that is tight and cuts off its own energy source, it has a really hard time relaxing because it needs energy to do that so with laser we are able to put energy into those soft tissue areas and help the body kick start its own healing process,” explains Dr. Romano.
Laser therapy is used for soft-tissue injuries, ramping up the immune system, areas of dermatitis, controlling pain in arthritic joints and for resolving swelling and bruising associated with surgery.
The underwater treadmill has several benefits but the two big ones are resistance and buoyancy. Let’s say you are treating a fracture, says Dr. Schiller. “Because you are buoyant and you’re not putting (weight on) that leg in a really strenuous way, we can push activity much earlier and to a faster level in the water than we can on dry land.”
Resistance happens at the water/air interface, says Dr. Romano. “Dog’s limbs are skinny so not very resistant when swimming but if they are dragging their body through belly height water it’s a lot harder for them.”
Neuromuscular electrical stimulation uses electrical impulses to create a muscle contraction. “If we have a patient that has a lot of muscle loss through use or injury then we may use (electrical stimulation) to get that muscle to start growing and improving,” says Dr. Schiller.
Rehab therapy is very effective and costs about the same as human physiotherapy. The initial assessment costs about $110 and each subsequent visit, depending on the treatment, ranges from about $65 to $85. If you have pet insurance, you’ll have to check with your insurance provider to see what your policy covers.
In the field of rehab therapy, you don’t have to be a vet to offer rehabilitation services, so Schiller advises pet guardians, when looking for a rehab therapist, to ask a lot of questions and ask for their credentials. If your pets are not put in the hands of a qualified professional, there is the risk of exacerbating their condition or further injury.