Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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"Animal Rehabilitation" Means Physical Therapy in Veterinary Medicine


Pet Column for the week of December 2, 2002


Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Jennifer Stone
Information Specialist

Physical therapy, a mainstay of recovery in human medicine, is now becoming established in the world of veterinary medicine as well. Dr. Dianne Dunning, a small animal surgeon at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana, is spearheading a new program to use animal rehabilitation to speed recovery and improve quality of life for animal patients with a wide range of problems.

"We first envisioned an animal rehabilitation program here as a way to help animals recover more quickly from surgery," says Dr. Dunning. "However, the program has grown to include many other types of patients, including older animals with arthritis, obese animals having functional problems, and healthy animals whose owners want them to perform at a higher level athletically. Only about half of our current caseload consists of post-operative patients."

Kim Knap, a certified veterinary technician trained in animal rehabilitation,* has been a driving force in getting the University of Illinois program up and running. "Owner education is critical for pet rehabilitation," says Knap. "While the animals are in the hospital, we work with each patient intensively and devise individualized protocols to maximize their recovery. Once they go home, we continue to work with the owners to maintain and improve their pets' quality of life and limb function."

Before any therapy is begun, a full orthopedic and neurological analysis is done to determine the type of therapy needed and improvement that can be expected. Many therapeutic approaches are available, and the treatment is tailored to each patient.

"We have a big inflated ball, called a physioball, and a cradle-shaped platform, called a balance board, that can be rocked gently back and forth to improve balance and coordination and develop muscle mass," says Dr. Dunning. "We have both a land and an underwater treadmill that help build muscle mass and normalize gait. The underwater treadmill uses the properties of water to facilitate exercise in a debilitated animal. The buoyancy of water enables patients to get up and moving sooner than they otherwise could." The water can also be warmed for therapeutic reasons and for the comfort of the patient.

Ultrasound therapy can help break down abnormal adhesions between tissues, relieve pain, and break down scar tissue. This can help to extend the range of motion in a joint.

Electrical stimulation is used to induce isometric contractions that help reeducate muscles. "This type of therapy is especially helpful for patients that have had neuromuscular disease or that have severe disuse muscle atrophy," says Dr. Dunning. "In conjunction with therapeutic exercise, electrical stimulation enhances muscle development and strength."

In addition to these high-tech items, more simple techniques can be employed to help patients. "Sitting exercises are a great way to encourage hip flexion and extension," says Knap. "We also have animals step over rails, walk through tunnels, and jump through hoops. Each of these exercises provides therapy to different muscles and joints. If the process can be made into a fun experience, then therapy can be a very positive experience for both the pet and the owner."

"In human medicine, it has been definitively shown that daily moderate activity and daily therapeutic exercise help to increase joint mobility, strength, and quality of life," says Dr. Dunning. "Up until now, it has not really been used in veterinary medicine as a stand alone type of therapy, but I think that it will be shown to have benefits, especially with orthopedic disease, joint disease, osteoarthritis, and conditions when muscle atrophy has occurred."

If you are interested in the animal rehabilitation program at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital, please call Kim Knap at 217/265-5533 for more information.

* Kim Knap has completed the coursework for and in June 2003 will graduate from the first-ever certification course in Canine Rehabilitation, offered by the University of Tennessee and Northeast Seminars.