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Traditionally, treatment for arthritis in dogs (more commonly called osteoarthritis) has focused on using medications to relieve joint pain and inflammation. Many veterinarians also incorporate joint supplements, weight control, and other management tools to give arthritic dogs more help. However, medications can’t improve a dog’s strength or fitness level, which directly affects mobility. Rehabilitative medicine, also known by the term rehab, can help meet this therapeutic need. Properly undertaken, a rehabilitative medicine program can dramatically increase strength and mobility, improving overall quality of life for dogs with osteoarthritis. Some consider rehabilitative medicine a tool that is reserved for dogs recovering from orthopedic surgery or injury. However, because the principles of rehabilitative medicine are fairly universal, this therapy can also be very useful for managing dogs with osteoarthritis.
The overall goals of rehab are to improve comfort, joint motion, and strength. During the early stages of osteoarthritis, pain relief is a primary goal, and rehabilitative practices can help accomplish that. As osteoarthritis progresses, the body undergoes other changes including reduced joint motion, loss of muscle mass, and decreased muscle strength. A well-structured rehab program can combat these complications as well.
Pain is often the main hindrance to initiating a rehabilitation program. If a dog is in pain, even passive stretching and massage are uncomfortable. In contrast, if a dog responds to pain management quickly, rehab can begin as soon as possible and can continue based on the dog’s abilities. Pain medications, joint supplements, and other products can continue as needed to keep the dog comfortable, control inflammation, and promote a continued willingness to exercise.
The techniques and equipment needed for rehabilitative therapy vary depending on the needs of the patient but can include the following:
Your veterinarian may recommend and structure a rehab program for your pet or may refer you to a rehab specialist to get you started. Once a dog begins a rehabilitative medicine program, results are generally observed quickly. Pain relief can be the most rapid result. If a dog is having an arthritis flare-up, ice can be used with pain medication to provide quick relief. Improved limb use can be observed within days to weeks of initiating a program. However, progress depends on the degree of disuse that was present initially. A more chronically affected dog can be expected to take a longer time to respond. Improvements in overall strength can also be observed during the first few weeks of therapy.
Once initial improvements are made, the goal is to continue the program, modifying and increasing as necessary, to maintain the patient at a level where strength and mobility remain favorable. Ideally, regular exercise should continue long term but must be carefully controlled to prevent injury.
This article has been reviewed by a Veterinarian.
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