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

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New Angles to Animal Rehabilitation


Pet Column for the week of November 10, 2003


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

The University of Illinois Companion Animal Rehabilitation Program has taken off running in its first year. The program is not only helping dogs recovering from orthopedic surgery; these dogs surprisingly only represent 40-50% of those undergoing therapy. Dogs with cancer, neurological problems, arthritis, and sport dogs are benefiting from therapy at the Rehabilitation Program.

"The program has become very broad spectrum. Close to 40% of the dogs we see have a neurological condition and oncologic (cancer) patients make up most of the remaining appointments. Both these groups often have long hospital stays. Working with us these dogs enjoy their stay more, are less depressed, and often have a better response to their main medical treatment!" says Dr. Dianne Dunning, an orthopedic surgeon heading up the Rehabilitation Program at the University of Illinois in Urbana.

The rehabilitation plan for dogs with cancer is centered on low intensity, exercise therapy. Play therapy is also included in the regime; play therapy has been shown to lessen the effects of radiation and chemotherapy in children. These sessions include nothing causes stress or strain. The underwater treadmill is a great tool for these low intensity workouts. The quality of life and general well being of these animals improves, this shows in their response to treatment and the shape they are in after treatment.

Dogs with intervertebral disc disease and spinal tumors are the most common neurological patients that pass through the rehab program's doors. These patients usually exhibit some type of paresis or paralysis; they are not able to move about on their own or are completely bed-ridden. Supportive care is given to improve blood supply to the limbs, stop edema (pooling of fluids in the limbs) via massage and deep healing done through ultrasound. Pain management and muscle re-education through electric stimulation is also incorporated into therapy.

"The cornerstone of therapy is the underwater treadmill/swimming for dogs not ambulating well on their own. The buoyancy of the water enables the animal to walk unassisted much earlier. Unencumbered by gravity, dogs can move their paralyzed limbs with greater ease in the water, any motor function they have becomes more pronounced; they can use their legs better. Muscle atrophy is less in these animals too. The underwater treadmill re-educates nerves and muscles by teaching them how to walk again. The belt initiates motion which is a big hurdle for these dogs," explains Dr. Dunning.

A land treadmill is also used with dogs that are weakly ambulatory. They want to use their injured leg but are tentative. These dogs don't need to be worried about propulsion or breaking. They just have to place their foot!

Dogs suffering from arthritis can also benefit from physical therapy. These dogs experience joint swelling, joint pain, and range of motion problems. Muscle wasting is a problem with these dogs as they become reluctant to move if painful. The goal with these dogs is to increase pain free range of motion and build muscle strength. The joint becomes better lubricated and less painful. The degree of improvement differs dog-to-dog depending upon initial loss of range of motion, how much you work with the dog, and the amount of muscle mass lost. The great thing is these exercises can be done at home with proper training!

Sport dogs are another group of dogs seen at the program. These dogs may be recovering from an injury or looking to improve performance. For example a good agility dog needs a combination of speed, cornering, and proprioception (knowing where all the parts of your body are). Resistance training, obstacle courses, and balancing exercises improve all three.

"We are currently trying to develop a new program to help cardiology patients. In people with heart conditions is has been documented that daily exercise and activity improves quality and quantity of life. The heart is a muscle too and conditioning it leads to a healthier and longer life! New protocols are being developed for our canine friends and hopefully we'll be integrating cardio patients into our appointment book soon!" comments Dr. Dunning.

Another target Dr. Dunning has in mind are obese dogs. Obesity is a growing problem in dogs as well as people. Doggie weight loss programs are being developed. Also ideas for seminars for dogs and their owners are being planned. These support groups would be both social and fun for everyone. It's a fact that dogs and owners who lose weight together keep it off!

Owners can be trained to do many of these exercises at home. So no matter what your dog's problem is you can help him at home with the right guidance. "We are working with owners closely, training them to do range of motion and strength exercises with their dogs at home. However, rehabilitation does not mean unrestricted ball playing or off-leash activity. If owners are not able to work with animals at home then traditional kennel confinement is recommended," states Dr. Dunning.

What the rehabilitation program offers is not an alternative to medical treatment. It is not meant to be the sole therapy. It is a tool to improve the medical therapy being done. Improved quality of life and improved response to treatment are the main goals of the program.

"The environment here is very warm and friendly. It's pretty amazing what you can ask animals to do if they are not frightened or stressed and calmly approached. They enjoy the activity and the challenge."

For more information about the Companion Animal Rehabilitation Program or to see if this therapy might be right for your dog contact Dr. Dunning at (217) 333-5300.