Age is just a number, not only for us, but for our animals as well. Mobility and quality of life are some key factors that clients desire for their pets, so a focus on how to improve these for our beloved animals is one of the main goals of physical rehabilitation. The average life span of the most common breed, the Labrador Retriever, was 12.8 years in 2008, according to the AKC; however, many dogs are living well past that number.
Some of the medical conditions that older dogs experience include arthritis (hip/elbow dysplasia), intervertebral disc disease (IVDD), degenerative myelopathy/neuropathy, obesity, and generalized weakness. Medical management of these conditions is limited – NSAIDs and tramadol will only go so far for a dog that is having trouble getting around independently. Also, if the impairment is mostly due to weakness and not discomfort, those drugs may even make things more difficult by changing the dog’s balance and orientation.
Physical rehabilitation is a safe, gentle, yet effective prescription for the aging canine patient. To use a dog with IVDD as an example – physical impairments caused by compression of the spinal cord or nerve roots may include weakness in some or all limbs, proprioceptive deficits, changes in spinal reflexes and muscle tone (hyper/hypotonia), altered pain perception and/or sensation, and ataxia. Physical impairments lead to functional limitations, such as difficulty rising from the floor, transitioning between positions, gait deviations, or posturing for elimination. The goal of physical rehabilitation is to return this patient to the highest level of independence possible, which for many pets and clients may just be the ability to walk and maintain independence with eliminating.
Modalities are used to address impairments at the cellular level, such as to reduce inflammation and aid in healing. LASER treatment, ultrasound, and pulsed electric magnetic field (PEMF) therapy are some of the common modalities that have been found to be effective. LASER therapy is particularly helpful for arthritic joints and muscle knots/ strains. Dogs with weakness in the pelvic limbs shift their weight cranially onto the thoracic limbs, which can create muscle knots and limited range of motion.
Therapeutic exercise is the most fun part of physical rehabilitation, as it usually involves treats for the dogs! Creativity is key in developing activities that engage the dog and the client in order to ensure compliance with the home exercise program. These activities often look like obedience or games, but a therapist is utilizing kinesiology principles to choose activities that target specific muscles and have the dog actively work on the outlined goals. For example, to improve proprioception and gait, a dog may be asked to walk over cavaletti rails, in tall grass, over cushions, in the underwater treadmill, or through tunnels for strengthening.
Physical therapists have found a direct relationship between strength and function in people, and the same holds true for dogs. Referral to physical rehabilitation may be an option for your aging patients to improve quality of life for not only them, but for their family as well.