Veterinary Rehabilitation Services for Dogs and Cats

By PetMD Editorial. Reviewed by Hanie Elfenbein, DVM on May 5, 2019

Reviewed and updated for accuracy on May 6, 2019 by Dr. Hanie Elfenbein, DVM, PhD

Physical therapy centers help people recover from traumatic injuries and life-saving surgeries, but did you know that the same service exists for dogs and cats?

In fact, veterinary rehabilitation therapy is a growing field in animal medicine, especially as pet owners become more educated on the similarities between human and animal physiology. Pet parents increasingly expect the same type of care for their pets as they do for themselves.

Veterinarian Rehabilitation Options

Depending on what your dog is recovering from, therapy options may include:

  • Massages

  • Hydrotherapy

  • Heat and cold therapy

  • Therapeutic electric and laser application

  • Acupuncture

  • Chiropractic

  • Physical therapy

These therapies can help your pet to regain mobility, decrease pain, reduce weight, increase strength and, in some cases, return to participating in athletic activities (if she had been previously).

While veterinarians strive to be patient advocates, it is important for you as the pet parent to let your veterinarian know that you are interested in taking proactive steps to help your pet.

Physical Rehabilitation

Physical rehabilitation, the name for physical therapy for pets, involves not only special types of equipment, but also many directed exercises to improve your pet’s mobility, increase joint range of motion and strengthen muscles. These exercises will be performed during sessions with the therapist and also at home by you, the pet parent.

Veterinarians trained and certified in physical rehabilitation medicine are increasingly available at large clinics where complex surgical procedures are performed. Their veterinary rehabilitation services should be seen as just as important to healing as the surgery itself.

When surgery isn’t an option, like for an older pet or one who’s pain is not surgical, physical rehabilitation can provide improvements that prescription pet medication alone can never achieve.

Cat and Dog Massage Therapy

Just as humans find relief from stress and injury in a therapeutic massage, dogs are also soothed by a good massage.

Massages help calm pets, and they accelerate the rate at which damaged tissues are able to heal and reduce pain. There are therapy centers that offer deep tissue massages for dogs, but even a basic dog massage therapy session can greatly improve your dog’s well-being and recovery time.

Learning to do massage therapy at home can help your pet recover faster from surgery. Your veterinary provider can teach you how to do this properly, as you do not want to cause further injury.

Sporting dogs are increasingly being treated with dog massage therapy after competitions to help reduce stiffness and speed up recovery of muscle and tissue tearing.

Older pets that are slowing down and losing mobility can also benefit from massage therapy and its ability to reduce pain, swelling and the stiffness that naturally occurs in older joints.

Hydrotherapy for Dogs and Cats

Animals that benefit most from hydrotherapy tend to be older, overweight or unable/unwilling to put weight on an injured limb.

This type of physical therapy for pets allows for a complete range of motion while being supported by water, while the resistance from the water works to build muscle and improve blood flow.

However, young active pets can benefit as well because it helps to build stronger muscles while putting less strain on their joints during exercise. The difficulty of the physical activity of hydrotherapy is tailored to each pet.

Specially designed therapy pools are used so that the animals are getting the full benefit of normal exercise without all the stress on the joints and muscles. One of the devices therapists employ is the underwater treadmill, so that the dog can go through the normal motions of walking without weight bearing down on healing bones, joints and muscles.

For other pets, hydrotherapy is more about being supported by the water with water jets aimed to loosen tight muscles. The specific type of therapy will depend on your pet’s physical goals and needs.

The use of hydrotherapy for dogs has been shown to loosen up tight, constricted muscles, improve strength and stamina, reduce pain, increase mobility, and even help dogs to lose weight.

Pet Laser Therapy

Pet laser therapy uses directed light waves to activate cells in an area of injury to speed up the healing process. Most dogs and cats are willing to remain still for the few minutes it takes to administer the treatment, and it can usually be done at your regular veterinary clinic.

It should be repeated as frequently as your veterinarian recommends and until you see improvement. Once your pet has reached their veterinary rehabilitation goals, the pet laser therapy treatments can be continued on a maintenance schedule.

Finding a Veterinary Rehabilitation Specialist

If your dog or cat has suffered a recent injury, or is in distress due to other circumstances, and the recovery is expected to be long, talk to your veterinarian about finding a qualified veterinary rehabilitation therapist.

You can also talk to local trainers and dog competition groups—people who would be disposed toward natural healing methods, like massage therapy and hydrotherapy.

With veterinary rehabilitation specialty clinics opening all over the country and more veterinary school hospitals as well as larger specialty and emergency hospitals offering these services, they are becoming easier for pet parents to access.

Finding the right veterinary rehabilitation specialist is the first step to recovery for your dog. However, if you want to see optimal results, it will help if you are directly involved in your dog’s therapy—learning some of the techniques that you can apply at home as well. Most veterinarians want to teach you exercises to do at home because your active involvement will speed your pet’s healing.

You may find that your dog’s health and attitude is improved so much that you continue some of the techniques for the life of your dog.

The American Association of Rehabilitation Veterinarians has a great directory that you can use to find veterinary rehabilitation providers near you.

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