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

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Physical Rehabilitation Improves Healing and Happiness

Pet Column for the week of January 16, 2006

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

To help a pet recover from an injury or orthopedic or neurologic surgery, veterinarians used to prescribe "cage rest," minimizing a patient's activity during the healing period. Over the last decade, however, the veterinary community has explored the healing benefits of rehabilitative therapies such as warm water exercise, passive range of motion, massage, neuromuscular stimulation, and ultrasound therapy.

These therapies, components of the growing field of veterinary physical rehabilitation, provide an alternative to cage rest and can help patients recover faster and more completely. According to Kim Knap, certified veterinary technician and certified canine rehabilitation practitioner at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana, these therapies can help rebuild muscle and retrain nerves for pets suffering orthopedic or neurological disease.

Rehabilitative exercises can also improve a patient's mental and emotional well-being, and a patient with an improved attitude has a better chance at healing.

When a pet suffers a bone fracture, torn knee ligaments, or intervertebral disc disease, surgery is usually the first step. However, repair and healing of such injuries is a longer-term process that can be aided by veterinary rehabilitation.

When a limb is immobilized with a cast, splint, or pins to help injured bones and ligaments heal, or is immobilized due to a neurological injury or disease, blood flow through the limb decreases, the muscles shrink, or atrophy, and the joints stiffen from the lack of use.

Knap explains, "The goal of physical rehabilitation is to aid healing by stimulating blood flow, maintaining joint flexibility, and stimulating nerves and muscles." Massage therapy increases blood flow to muscles and helps loosen tight muscles.

Passive range of motion exercises, in which a rehabilitator moves the limb for the patient, helps the joints regain their flexibility. Use of a mild electrical current to stimulate a muscle to contract, called neuroelecrical stimulation, can help combat muscle atrophy. For diseases in which nerves don't properly communicate with muscle, this stimulation can also encourage new nerve connections to form.

"Our goal is to get the patient to use its own muscles to move," says Knap, "but in the meantime, these therapies help prevent further deterioration."

Once a patient can move its limbs on its own, a rehabilitator will ease them into exercises to build strength and combat the boredom and depression that can accompany illness and inactivity.

Ultrasound therapy can be used to warm up muscles before exercise, and different types of exercise can provide varying levels of assistance and resistance for recovering patients.

An underwater treadmill gives patients who may have difficulty walking on land a chance to exercise their nerves and muscles; the water and a flotation vest worn by the patient reduce the amount of weight legs have to bear. In addition, jets of warm water help stimulate blood flow and may reduce pain. As a patient becomes stronger, the amount of water in the treadmill pool can be reduced.

In addition to providing physical exercise and relief, and underwater treadmill can also provide a patient with a level of independence they cant get on land. "A pet who can't take a walk in the park without help from its owner can get into the underwater treadmill and enjoy walking more freely and comfortably," Knap points out.

Dogs are playful and active by nature, and whenever they become inactive, they can become depressed, so giving dogs with arthritis or other degenerative diseases a chance to enjoy exercise can improve their mood and disposition.

Land treadmills, balance balls, and balance boards (similar to those used in human physical training) can be used as patients become stronger. Balancing activities help dogs recovering from neurological injury by encouraging the brain to recognize changes in the position of the feet and limbs, stimulating the nerve connections between the brain and the limbs.

Oncology patients who have to stay at the teaching hospital for long periods of time can become bored and lonely being away from their owners, so the rehabilitation department staff and volunteers will also use rehabilitation facilities and activities to keep the dogs active, playful, and happy during their stay.

In addition to therapies provided at hospitals, veterinary physical rehabilitation also involves exercises that can performed at home. "Owner involvement is an important part of rehabilitation, and I send owners home with an individualized series of exercises they can do with their pet between visits. These can really impact a patients progress."

Knap explains that understanding behavior is important for any rehabilitator, since most therapies require communicating with patients to gain their trust and cooperation.

"The greatest part of my job is seeing patients improve in one day or one session. When they come back and are excited to get on the treadmill, I love knowing that I could provide this special service for them."

In addition to helping patients recover from injury or disease, veterinary physical rehabilitation therapies can also help obese pets lose weight and canine athletes stay fit.

For more information about veterinary physical rehabilitation, consult your veterinarian.

For photographs, contact Mandy Barth, 217-244-1561 or