Your pet’s health is multifaceted and complex and includes their physical and emotional wellbeing. Veterinary rehabilitation (i.e., physical therapy for pets) is an exciting and relatively new veterinary specialty that covers both areas by providing pain relief, mobility support, physical fitness, and strength-building. Through various pet-friendly modalities, techniques, and therapies, veterinary rehabilitation can improve and expand your pet’s physical abilities, comfort, and self-confidence and provide an enhanced quality of life.

What is veterinary rehabilitation?

The Central Houston Animal Hospital team is proud to provide veterinary rehabilitation services for our pet patients. Like physical therapy in humans, veterinary rehabilitation is a specialized area dedicated to promoting, rebuilding, and enhancing pets’ physical movement through controlled exercises, pain-relieving therapies, and targeted training. Veterinary rehabilitation has numerous advantages for pets of all ages and species, including:

  • Post-operative healing — Post-operative uses include orthopedic (e.g., elbow, hip, or knee) surgery and intervertebral disc disease (IVDD) surgery. 
  • Chronic condition management — Rehabilitation can be an appropriate non-surgical alternative for some orthopedic and neurologic conditions, including arthritis, IVDD, hip and elbow dysplasia, soft tissue injuries or strains (i.e., ligaments, tendons), partial cruciate ligament rupture, and luxating patellas, as well as when surgery is contraindicated. 
  • Injury prevention — Supervised strength and coordination training can reduce injury risk and may slow or halt orthopedic injury progression.
  • Weight loss — Obesity can shorten your pet’s life, impair their mobility, and increase their risk for debilitating disease. Veterinary rehabilitation can help ensure controlled, effective, and veterinary-supervised weight loss customized to your pet’s needs.
  • Mental engagement — Rehabilitation exercises and activities build your pet’s self-confidence and curiosity, although this benefit is often overlooked. We prioritize comfort and low-stress techniques, so pets enjoy their rehabilitation sessions and owners report that their pets seem happier and more engaged at home.
  • Non-pharmaceutical pain relief — Rehabilitation services are an excellent complement or alternative to analgesic pain medication (e.g., opioids, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories [i.e., NSAIDs]), making them especially advantageous for pets who cannot receive standard pain medications because of compromised kidney or liver function.
  • Senior mobility — Aging pets lose mobility because of cumulative damage (i.e., wear and tear) and chronic conditions (e.g., osteoarthritis, IVDD). Rehabilitation can relieve aches and pains, prevent muscle loss, and preserve core muscle strength, which help your senior pet avoid slip- and fall-related injuries.
  • Athletic conditioning and maintenance — Sporting and working dogs need ongoing physical training to remain in peak condition and retain their fitness off-season.

How do you perform veterinary rehabilitation? 

Pet owners often question whether their pet will cooperate with veterinary rehabilitation exercises and treatments. However, most owners are surprised and delighted to learn that their pets find rehabilitation pleasant, because of these factors:

  • Low-stress approach — Pets who are referred for rehabilitation may be painful or physically impaired, and may react defensively or be significantly fearful. Rehabilitation visits are unhurried and our therapists are continuously aware of pain’s impact on the pet’s physical and mental state.
  • Patient-guided exercises — Pets can be taught to perform many exercises on their own by shifting their weight toward or away from certain areas and stepping on or over various props. This is especially advantageous for pets who feel threatened or who fear physical manipulation or close proximity with unfamiliar people (i.e., the therapist).
  • Conditioned emotional responses — We pair your pet’s effort, movement, and cooperation with tasty treats to create a positive association toward physical action, equipment, and the entire rehabilitation environment. In other words, we make rehabilitation rewarding and a reinforcing game that pets love, which is especially important for building pet trust and willing participation, since rehabilitation therapies can involve unfamiliar objects, sensations, movements, and devices. 

What services are used in veterinary rehabilitation? 

Rehabilitation treatment plans are customized to suit each pet’s health needs and goals, so no two programs are exactly alike. Your pet’s plan may also change based on their progress, pain level, and individual preferences. During rehabilitation therapy, your pet may experience:

  • Manual therapies — Hands-on therapeutic modalities include gentle massage to relax tense tissues and stimulate circulation, and stretching to improve flexibility and joint range-of-motion. 
  • Acupuncture — Ancient Chinese acupuncture therapy uses tiny needles to activate specific energy points throughout the body to promote relaxation, blood flow, and healing.
  • Laser therapy — Laser therapy (i.e., photobiomodulation), which stimulates cellular activity with a specific non-visible light wavelength, is commonly used for wound healing, post-operative recovery, and chronic pain relief.  
  • Therapeutic exercises — Therapeutic exercises—the heart and soul of veterinary rehabilitation—use your pet’s weight and movement to challenge the muscles and nerves to increase your pet’s strength, balance, and body awareness. Common exercises include stepping over low height rails, walking over or standing on unstable surfaces, and transitioning from sitting or lying down to standing position.
  • Hydrotherapy — Underwater treadmill walking and swimming use water’s healing properties (e.g., buoyancy, hydrostatic pressure, viscosity) to create a safe low-impact workout for your pet. Hydrotherapy is incredibly versatile and can help pets regain mobility, lose weight, and improve cardiovascular stamina. 
  • At-home exercise plans — Consistency is key to successful rehabilitation. We’ll provide customized daily practice plans for your pet at home, which are especially advantageous for pets who cannot be transported to the hospital or are uncomfortable with in-person care. 

The ability to customize veterinary rehabilitation goals, methods, and therapies to each individual patient ensures the therapy benefits nearly every pet. If you’re interested in exploring veterinary rehabilitation options for your pet, schedule a consultation appointment with our Central Houston Animal Hospital veterinarian.