Help Pets Recover with Physical Therapy (Pet Rehabilitation)

Jennifer Coates, DVM
By Jennifer Coates, DVM on May 2, 2019

Reviewed for accuracy on May 2, 2019, by Dr. Jennifer Coates, DVM

Cat and dog physical therapy (more appropriately referred to as pet rehabilitation in veterinary medicine) has long been an underutilized tool for animal patients. But that is finally starting to change.

In the past, owners were given limited instructions about how to best help their pets recover from injury or surgery. While icing an injured area or limiting exercise to leash walks for a period of time can certainly help in some cases, there is much more that we can do.

When Is Pet Rehabilitation Useful?

Rehab for dogs and cats is most often used in the postoperative period and/or to treat musculoskeletal problems, like osteoarthritis or cruciate ligament injuries. It is also used for neurologic conditions, weight management or improving athletic performance.

Protocols are designed based on a complete patient history, physical examination (including orthopedic and neurologic evaluations), and a rehabilitation examination that may include gait analysis and measurements of muscle mass and joint range of motion (goniometry).

How Is Pet Rehabilitation Performed?

Physical pet rehabilitation can be used alone or in combination with other treatments, like:

The goal is to restore a patient’s mobility, strength, comfort, flexibility, endurance, body position awareness and quality of life.

Sometimes, rehab for dogs and cats can be performed mostly by an animal’s owner under the guidance of a primary care veterinarian. More complicated cases benefit from the involvement of a specially trained animal rehabilitation specialist.

What Pet Rehabilitation Options Are Available?

A wide range of treatments are available, including:

  • Passive range of motion (PROM) exercises during which a caretaker gently flexes, extends and/or rotates affected joints

  • Stretching, which differs from PROM in that the joints are “pushed” with a bit more pressure

  • Active range of motion exercises where patients are encouraged to move and stretch themselves

  • The application of heat or cold to affected areas

  • Leash walking

  • Walking up and down ramps and stairs

  • Repeated sit-stand exercises

  • Weaving through a line of poles or cones

  • Walking in figure eights

  • Alternately moving forwards, backwards and to both sides

  • Stepping over horizontal blocks or poles set at varying distances and heights

  • Using exercise balls by placing the body or feet on the ball that is then rolled or rocked

  • Standing on a rocker or wobble board

  • Standing on balance blocks that can be slid in different directions

  • Adding weights or resistance to any exercise

  • Underwater treadmills (hydrotherapy)

  • Swimming

  • Neuromuscular electrical stimulation

  • Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation

  • Low-level laser therapy

  • Therapeutic ultrasound

  • Extracorporeal shockwave therapy

  • The use of assistive devices like harnesses, slings, protective nail covers or booties, orthotics (braces), prosthetic limbs or wheelchairs

The type of physical pet rehabilitation that is right for a particular patient depends on their illness or injury, any other conditions that they might be dealing with, and their overall condition.

Due to the complexity of factors that go into deciding the appropriate method of treatment,  it is always better to have your veterinarian and a trained pet rehabilitation specialist involved.

Whatever type of rehab for dogs or cats that your veterinarian or therapist recommends, be sure to follow through with it. Physical therapy for pets is tough love in action.

Even if your dog, cat, horse or other companion animal seems to prefer lounging in the sun, pet rehabilitation can mean the difference between permanent disability or a return to normal or near-normal function.

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Jennifer Coates, DVM


Jennifer Coates, DVM


Dr. Jennifer Coates is an accomplished veterinarian, writer, editor, and consultant with years of experience in the fields of veterinary...

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