Today’s pet owners want veterinary care that mirrors the best practices in human medicine, and veterinary professionals are responding by offering services previously associated with human care that benefit pets and meet client expectations. One area that reflects this trend is physical therapy and veterinary rehabilitation. Originally developed for equine, and later, canine athletes, rehabilitation and physical therapy are increasingly being recognized and used as an important part of whole-health care for family pets.
From the 2–year–old Labrador with a knee injury to the 12–year–old mix who is struggling up the stairs, veterinary rehabilitation offers assistance in regaining strength, improving mobility, and ultimately aims to provide the patient with a happier, healthier life.
A certified rehabilitation veterinarian is trained to utilize a number of skills and tools to assess a patient’s pain, mobility and muscle distribution, and to work toward improved function and comfort. A rehabilitation practice may have specialized equipment such as therapeutic laser or ultrasound, and some offer hydrotherapy with an underwater treadmill or pool. Additionally, some veterinarians certified in rehabilitation may also be certified to practice acupuncture (or work with one who is).
Many therapies, however, do not require any particular equipment or facilities. Passive range of motion, massage, therapeutic exercise, trigger point therapy and kinesiology taping are some of the effective treatments a rehabilitation veterinarian can offer in a standard clinic environment.
Veterinary rehabilitation can be used as part of a multi–modal approach to treating a variety of canine conditions including acute soft tissue injury, neurologic decrease in mobility and function, and pain due to chronic issues such as joint dysplasia or osteoarthritis. Additionally, physical therapy performed by a veterinarian certified in rehabilitation supports recovery from surgical procedures such as cruciate or fracture repairs, amputation and spinal surgery.
A study published by the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association in 2015 found dogs who received therapy from a veterinarian certified in rehabilitation were 1.9 times more likely to achieve full function eight weeks after their TPLO procedures than dogs simply restricted to leash walks and rest at home1. A quicker and more complete recovery provides greater patient comfort and client satisfaction, making veterinary rehabilitation a worthwhile addition to orthopedic surgery protocols.
Pets without a specific injury can also benefit from physical therapy and rehabilitation. As animals age, they are often affected with osteoarthritis and experience decreased mobility. A rehabilitation veterinarian can identify where a patient is experiencing pain and measure muscle atrophy and distribution to develop a treatment plan for senior pets. Specific exercises designed to maintain or rebuild strength can minimize the effects of aging and keep pets comfortable in their golden years.
Regardless of the condition being treated, typically the patient’s primary veterinarian will issue a referral to a rehabilitation veterinarian. For the duration of the patient’s treatment plan, both veterinarians will work closely with one another and with any specialists involved, ensuring pain management is addressed with prescriptions, if indicated, and that no single method of treatment interferes with care the patient is receiving at another practice.
Pet owners also play a crucial role in ensuring the success of rehabilitation therapy. During an appointment, the veterinarian will determine what kind of physical therapy is needed, and frequently these therapies need to be repeated at least daily to be most effective. While some facilities offer inpatient rehabilitation for postoperative patients, home care is often the easiest and most cost-effective option, especially for patients with long-term needs. A rehabilitation veterinarian teaches pet owners how to perform basic physical therapy at home, which may involve stretches, exercises and massage. The patient’s progress is then monitored with regular visits and reevaluations at the rehabilitation clinic.
Another way the home environment impacts the progress of rehabilitation is diet. Veterinarians certified in rehabilitation are required to be knowledgeable regarding weight management strategies, as many pets struggle with obesity which may result in or exacerbate musculoskeletal issues. In fact, physical therapy is sometimes used in cases where obesity is the primary complaint. Low-impact exercises provided and supervised by a rehabilitation veterinarian can be an effective part of helping patients who are overweight safely increase their activity level without placing excessive strain on joints. Through diet and exercise, a rehabilitation veterinarian works with the patient’s owners and primary veterinarian to help the patient reach or maintain a healthy body condition score.
Pursuing a career in rehabilitation medicine offers veterinary professionals an opportunity to support pets and their owners by providing individualized care and creative solutions in a variety of situations.
As Dr. Lara Day, Certified Canine Rehabilitation Practitioner and owner of Veterinary Rehabilitation Center of Wisconsin, explains, “I enjoy the challenge of finding the best treatment plan for the pet and the family. I love that by practicing rehabilitation I really get to build relationships with my clients and patients as I see them one–on–one on a regular basis. I see post-surgery patients of all ages, plus puppies with congenital abnormalities, and geriatrics with multiple issues. Rehabilitation also includes conditioning of canine athletes, so I get to work with healthy dogs at the top of their sport. Canine rehabilitation is a fulfilling veterinary career that is appreciated by veterinary surgeons, neurologists, general practitioners, and pet owners.”
Licensed veterinarians or physical therapists may pursue certification in canine veterinary rehabilitation. Certified veterinary technicians can obtain a rehabilitation certification, but must operate under the direct supervision of a licensed veterinarian certified in rehabilitation therapy. Certification courses vary in length and structure and may include online and in–person modules, in addition to an internship/externship.
According to the American Association of Rehabilitation Veterinarians, facilities offering canine certification include Canine Rehabilitation Institute, University of Tennessee, and Healing Oasis Wellness Center. A veterinarian can become board certified in rehabilitation through the American College of Veterinary Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation, a process that requires a 3–year residency and an examination.
For more information, visit the website of the American Association of Rehabilitation Veterinarians,
1. Romano LS, Cook JL. Safety and functional outcomes associated with short–term rehabilitation therapy in the post-operative management of tibial plateau leveling osteotomy. Can Vet J. 2015;56(9):942–946.