Physical rehabilitation is so much more than post-operative care. Here’s how it can help your pet—yes, even cats!

By Julie Wentzel, DVM, CVA, CVPP, CCRT

I hear it all the time. “Rehab for pets? You’re joking!” or “My dog didn’t have surgery, he doesn’t need rehab.” (Occasionally, those same people become long-term clients.) Physical rehabilitation is much more than just post-operative care. It is a great resource to help our pets with pain control, joint health and mobility, weight loss and control, and more. In many cases, it can also help with general wellbeing. And that includes all pets (cats, rabbits, and even birds)—not just dogs.

Managing pain in our pets is tricky not only because they can’t tell us what’s wrong, but also because we often don’t know what to look for. Before we can control pain, we must recognize it. Surprisingly, our pets do not typically show pain by crying out, biting, or limping. More commonly, their behavior changes. They may avoid using the limb, getting up or lying down, and rising to greet you when you get home. Their appetites may increase or decrease, and they may over- or under-groom an area. Once we acknowledge these changes, we can work to remedy their pain by trying several different therapies, the most common of which include laser therapy, ultrasound therapy, massage, joint mobilizations, and acupuncture. In some cases, more advanced therapies such as regenerative medicine, shockwave therapy, or intra-articular injections can be utilized in combination with rehabilitation exercises to improve comfort and function.

Longer, Better Lives
With advances in veterinary and pet care, our pets are living much longer. By considering their joint health, weight, and overall physique, we can ensure they enjoy a better quality of life, too. Making sure to stretch before exercise and incorporating simple conditioning exercises into your daily routine can help encourage proper muscle function and strength—both of which are important for comfort and range of motion in your joints. As we know, just like with humans, weakness and tight muscles often lead to injury in pets.

Pets are also prone to injury when they are overweight. If your dog is carrying a few extra pounds, take a closer look at his diet and/or ask your veterinarian to suggest a specialized diet for weight loss or control. Then work to incorporate low-impact, controlled exercises, such as swimming or walking in the underwater treadmill, to your dog’s daily routine. Who knows—your waistline may appreciate it, too!
Especially as pets start to age, it’s important to pay attention to their pain levels and joint health. Patients with osteoarthritis and soft tissue injuries, such as muscle strains or tendon issues (especially in the shoulders), can benefit from a wide range of therapies, from laser therapy to passive range of motion exercises, massage, and more. Poor range of motion can lead to lameness and compensatory discomfort in other areas of the body.

What to Expect
If you choose to pursue rehab, know that there are many options available to suite your pet’s needs and your schedule and budget. Here are some tips for what you can expect:
• Take your time. An initial evaluation for rehabilitation should include a thorough history; a thorough exam to evaluate for lameness, function, areas of discomfort; as well as a discussion about your goals. Therapy options and prognosis should be discussed and treatment may start.

• Do your homework. The work doesn’t stop at the door of the gym. Typically, your practitioner will send you home with a strengthening or conditioning plan with exercises for you and your pet to engage in for 30+ minutes per day in order to help your pet reach his goals. If any activity restrictions are recommended, follow them closely to avoid injury!

• Come prepared. If your pet is on pain medications, you may want to give those meds prior to your rehab appointment. But all practices are different, so be sure to ask when you call to schedule your appointment. And if your pet has a toy or a specific treat that helps to motivate or calm him, bring that along as well!

• Take it easy. In some cases, your pet may be a bit sore or tired following this appointment. Rest assured, this is totally normal. Think of your last tough workout at the gym—you pet will be feeling similarly after a good rehab session. If the soreness or sleepiness persist more than 24 hours, contact your rehabilitation practitioner or primary veterinarian.

• Forget one-size-fits-all. The best rehabilitation programs are customized to your pet’s specific needs and your goals. Many primary veterinary clinics now offer rehabilitation therapies, or you can pursue treatment at a specialized rehab center. If your pet prefers the comforts of home, a practitioner can develop an at-home program with exercises you can do in a controlled setting and work with you from afar to assess progress and make adjustments.

Physical rehabilitation offers many options for pets of all shapes and sizes. It may be hard to imagine a cat on the underwater treadmill or a bird undergoing acupuncture treatment, but trust me—we have the pictures to prove it!
If you have questions about how rehab can help your pet, speak with your veterinarian or local certified rehabilitation practitioner.

A graduate of Virginia Tech and the University of Illinois, Dr. Julie Wentzel is the medical director of Veterinary Surgical Centers Rehabilitation, the leading full-service physical rehabilitation and pain management practice in the Washington D.C.-area. For more information, go to