From two days a week in Campbell to full-time in two hospitals, SAGE Physical Rehabilitation has gone through quite a transformation since it started being offered as a service in 2007. Today, the department includes two rehabilitation therapists and three technicians.
“When opening our first state-of-the-art hospital in Campbell in 2006, we knew that we wanted to offer rehabilitation as part of an expanding offering of services to our patients,” said SAGE Medical Director Dr. Julie Smith, herself a certified canine rehabilitation therapist. “Rehabilitation was of interest to me being a surgeon and an athlete (at times!), so I was excited to be the one to start this department. I also quickly realized that physical therapists, with their extensive training and background, were the team that I needed to hire to run the department in order for it to truly offer the best in patient care.”
Led by Dr. Jill Kuhl in Campbell and Dr. Jenny Jones in San Mateo, SAGE Physical Rehabilitation aims to maximize an animal’s ability to move around comfortably in their environment and perform daily activities despite any physical impairment. While physical rehabilitation is often used to improve post-surgery recovery, it can also be used to help animals who are not good candidates for surgery, who are recovering from injury, and those who are dealing with congenital issues, old age, or chronic disease. Though the majority of pets treated by SAGE Rehab are dogs, cats are seen as well.
“A friend’s sister’s dog had TPLO surgery and therapy was recommended,” Jenny says of how she became acquainted with the field of animal rehabilitation. “Later I ended up seeing a position for a therapist at VSA (as SAGE was then known) and was brought in for a working interview. At first, it was just me and Julie Smith two days a week.”
Working in animal rehabilitation allows Dr. Jill Kuhl to combine two of her passions.
Both Kuhl and Jones are licensed physical therapists, a term that applies only to human medicine. They have also received certification in canine rehabilitation therapy. Drawn to human and animal medicine from early ages, they both became more acquainted with physical therapy while working to recover from their own athletic injuries. Jenny attended Boston University where she did a combined undergraduate and master’s program in physical therapy. She received her doctorate in 2007. Jill did her undergraduate education at UC San Diego, studying neuroscience and physiology. She would go on to receive her MS and DPT from UC San Francisco.
“As a student, I attended a conference where there was a session on animal rehab,” says Jill, who volunteered at animal shelters growing up and even interned at a general veterinary practice. “It was like my two worlds collided and it became my path.”
Both Jenny and Jill have extensive experience working with pediatric patients, which they say has more similarities to working with animals than you might initially suspect.
“Similar to kids, you have to make it fun and sometimes trick them a bit into working toward the end goal,” says Jill. “A lot of the pediatric patients I worked with were non-verbal, so you rely a lot on body language.”
“Working with kids, you have to be open-minded, creative, and quick on your feet,” Jenny says. “I think there was a lot of valuable experience that makes working with animals easier.”
A little bit of chicken helps some dogs find their motivation.
Food and toys are often used to help motivate the animal into doing exercises. SAGE Rehab maintains a Facebook page where visitors can watch videos of patients using the underwater treadmill for hydrotherapy or standing on unsteady surfaces to improve balance and leg strength.
Fascinated with animal psychology, Jenny has learned a lot about animal behavior from her own dog, Murray.
“I’ve always kind of had a knack for working with difficult patients,” she says. “I really enjoy working with animals who might be aggressive or shy and getting them to trust me.”
Both Jenny and Jill profess a fondness for working with patients with neurology issues. One of the patients Jenny considers among the most memorable was a greyhound who suffered a fibrocartilaginous embolism (FCE), or what’s known as a spinal stroke. Onyx was unable to stand and could barely lift her head.
“It was really a whole hospital effort,” Jenny says. “Onyx boarded for a couple weeks for intensive therapy. She would stay in the therapy room and interact with other patients and have therapy sessions throughout the day. We got her to walk and now she can even run. She continues to come to rehab just for maintenance.”
Matching smiles during a treatment session.
The rehab therapists work very closely with SAGE specialists, often collaborating on the best courses of treatment.
“We see a lot of orthopedic cases, obviously, but we also see neuro cases, cancer cases, animals needing adaptive equipment,” Jill says. “One of the things that I really like about my job here is that I’m able to dabble in all of these different areas, as opposed to human medicine where you really have to specialize.”
Physical rehabilitation encompasses many different types of treatment and can include exercises, laser therapy, joint mobilization, and myofascial release (soft tissue therapy), as well as prosthetic limbs and assistive devices such as carts for mobility or boots for better traction. The point of it all is to help the animal maintain the highest quality of life.
“Just having physical rehabilitation as an option is a very cool thing,” Jill says. “I really enjoy spending quality time with owners, helping them learn and understand all of the options that are available.