When Should You Consider Physical Rehabilitation for your Dog or Cat

Written on May 03, 2019 by Staff Veterinarian

Canine Physical Rehabilitation* is a treatment regimen that involves reducing discomfort and increasing or regaining the physical abilities of our pets. Our pets live to be active. Our goal is to help them remain that way.

Canine rehabilitation aims to accomplish the same goals as people do with physical therapy.  Rehabilitation is commonly prescribed following surgery or diagnosis of a neurologic disease to help your dog or cat regain or maintain strength. In some cases,we are able to use therapeutic modalities with medications to help our pets overcome an injury and regain function with rehabilitation alone. Human and animal bodies function similarly, so, just as PT and exercise aid people as they age, so too can it be used in pets to maintain their overall health, mobility, weight,and well-being as they age.

Physical rehabilitation is a scientifically based, clinically proven way to help your pets feel well. It is typically a 6-12 week course of therapy. Depending on the severity of the condition and your availability, appointments can vary from twice per week for 6-12 weeks, once per week for 4 weeks, then every other week, and so on. There may be a demand for early frequent treatment, but at the same time, some treatment is better than no treatment. Your practitioner will work with you to find what works best for you and your pet.

What to Expect:


Laser therapy requires “doggles”

Physical rehabilitation is well tolerated, and in fact enjoyed by most of our pets. We use many forms of positive reinforcement to guide your pet through the sessions.

The first step is to assess your pet’s individual restrictions in motion. The diagnosis and treatment plan will be customized to meet your goals for your pet and the physical abilities or limitations of your dog or cat. In most cases, treatment will include a combination of manual therapies, therapeutic modalities, and exercise.

Manual Therapies: Stretching, Massage and Joint Mobilization

Rehabilitation has recognized that the soft tissues of our bodies – the muscles, tendons, ligaments, and joint capsules, are as important as our bones and joints in defining how well we move. Over time with injury, they often lose their range, strength, and elasticity due to the original injury as well as compensation. These modalities help to loosen the tissues and relieve discomfort. This allows our pets to start moving their limbs correctly, and hence regain healthy function.

Diagnostic and Therapeutic Modalities:

Laser therapy - This modality uses light energy to apply comforting heat to the affected tissue, but more importantly,it stimulates the mitochondria of the cells to clear waste products and heal the damaged cells. At the same time, it increases blood flow and scar tissue break down.

Therapeutic Ultrasound - Ultrasound emits a sound wave which passes through the skin and causes a vibration of the local tissue that will similarly create heat and increase blood flow and scar tissue breakdown. It also will then reduce swelling and chronic inflammation.

Neuromuscular Stimulation - Using an NEMS unit can provide pain relief like a TENS unit, but beyond simply relieving pain, it can also be used to truly fire an injured muscle to help it retrain itself out of spasm and strengthen itself.

The Underwater Treadmill (UWTM) - An effective method of exercise to get patients back to good health safely. The buoyancy provided by the water lessens the weight bearing load while the resistance strengthens the muscle and boosts endurance without the pain associated with weight bearing exercises. This low impact on the joints and the bones is sometimes necessary for some patients. The resistance of the water also helps to retrain the neuromuscular firing back into a more normal gait as well.


In the clinic we will use a wide variety of tools including cavaletti poles, rocker boards, physiorolls, weave poles, and balance discs. We will also simply teach new exercises, like high fives, sit to stands, playbows, and many more to help your pet.

At the same time that we are performing treatments at the clinic, we will be sending you home with instructions for further exercises, stretches, or heat/cold therapy treatments.

These exercises will increase range of motion, as well as strength and endurance within that range of motion.

This will be a set of tools that you will be able to use now, and in the future to help your pet. Along with the improvements in comfort, strength, and ability around the initially affected area, we are ultimately working towards retraining the neuromuscular firing of the muscles used in your pet’s gait to help them avoid re-injuring themselves in the future.


Many of our patients may already be on anti-inflammatories (NSAID’s) – the most commonly used pain reliever. But our goal is to reduce reliance on these medications. We will also frequently use muscle relaxants to release a spasming muscle, centrally acting pain relievers, and hot or cold packs; each can greatly impact your pet’s pain and can reduce the demand for NSAID’s.
An anti-anxiety medication may be used for nervous patients. Massage therapy requires a relaxed patient, and within a session or two, most pets are happily following a short exercise regimen and relaxing for a massage.
Please do not administer human medication of any kind to your pet without specific dose and brand information from your pet’s veterinarian.

Our Approach:

I have mentioned that “we” will work together many times in this summary. One of the most important elements in physical rehabilitation is “you”. Physical rehabilitation is a way for you to learn how you can help your pet feel better now, and in the future.

How Do You Become a Certified Canine Rehabilitation Professional?

The certificate program in canine rehabilitation is a sequence of postgraduate courses for veterinarians and physical therapists,followed by a supervised clinical experience and a cumulative examination. The courses are designed to guide the practitioner from the theoretical foundations through the clinical applications of canine rehabilitation.

After successful completion of all requirements, both veterinarians and physical therapists receive the title “Certified Canine Rehabilitation Therapist”,if they went to CRI, and “Certified Canine Rehabilitation Practitioner”,if they went to UT. Veterinarians are allowed to use the term “veterinary rehabilitation”,while physical therapists are allowed to use the term “physical therapy”.

All practitioners of each title are similarly qualified to treat cats and other species as well as dogs.

Helpful links:

Canine rehabilitation: An inside look at a fast-growing market segment.http://veterinarynews.dvm360.com/canine-rehabilitation-inside-look-fast-growing-market-segment

Canine Physical Therapy:https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canine_physical_therapy

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