Rehabilitation: Renewal for Stiff and Achy Pets


Dog in Support Sling
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Like physical therapy for humans, rehabilitation helps restore mobility and function for dogs and cats.

Rusty just wasn’t herself any more. At 10 years of age, the once-active Sheltie lagged behind on walks. She was reluctant to jump onto the bed and couch. And she refused to sit, even when her favorite treat was dangled above her. When pain medications alone didn’t improve the situation, her veterinarian recommended adding rehabilitation.


Rehabilitation gives the opportunity of maximizing return to function, even for patients with permanent impairments,” according to Dr. Julia Tomlinson, a board-certified specialist in rehabilitation and sports medicine and president-elect of the American College of Veterinary Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation, who treated Rusty after she was referred from her primary veterinarian.

As rehabilitation increasingly becomes part of the therapeutic mix, some general practice veterinarians now offer a few services, and a growing number of specialty practices are popping up, staffed by board-certified veterinary specialists who have advanced training in sports medicine and rehabilitation.


Like physical therapy in humans, rehabilitation helps restore mobility and function by focusing noninvasive therapies on muscles, bones, joints, and the tissues associated with them, such as ligaments, tendons, and nerves. Although pain medication is often an important part of therapy, Dr. Tomlinson points out that rehabilitation itself can also help to reduce pain for many pets.

Clinic Therapy With Homework

When examined by a veterinarian, Rusty was stiff and painful in her lower back and pelvis, and her muscles would spasm when those areas were manipulated. At the Twin Cities Animal Rehabilitation and Sports Medicine Clinic in Minnesota, she underwent laser therapy and joint mobilization and manipulation to help improve limb movement. Her pet parents were taught gentle traction techniques to perform at home with her.

“Within 2 weeks, she was feeling much better, managing a full walk with enthusiasm, and getting on the bed again,” reports Dr. Tomlinson. At that point, Rusty was prescribed at-home exercises to bolster her flexibility and strengthen her rear legs and core muscles.


“Owners often think all treatments have to be done in the clinic,” says Dr. Tomlinson. “They underestimate what can be done at home with our guidance.” That perception, along with another misconception — that rehabilitation is always expensive — often prevents pet parents from pursuing rehabilitation. “In fact, it can be one of the least expensive of all veterinary specialties,” she says.

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