Physiotherapy is defined as “therapy for the preservation, enhancement, or restoration of strength, movement and physical function impaired or threatened by disability, injury, or disease”.
In general, animals are incredible athletes. When they have had traumatic or surgical injuries, their ability to return to their previous level of exercise and flexibility is impacted by their ability to rehab their muscles. This includes the ability to fully stretch and flex muscles, and the retraining of muscles to be strong enough to support and sustain various actions.
Below, please find a few exercises that, with appropriate veterinary supervision, may be helpful. Please ensure your veterinarian feels an exercise is appropriate before using it. Always ensure that exercises are undertaken in a patient that is comfortable in his/her surroundings, with good footing, and a person the pet trusts. Exercises should be fun, positive, and upbeat, though not actually energetic! No exercises should be started if the patient has inadequately controlled pain. At no time should the patient be overly challenged to the point they falter or fall. Your patient should always start therapy with “warm” muscles – either a gentle walk around the block if they are up to it, or some warm towels from the dryer over the affected area of animal for at least 5 minutes. Also, ensure the “therapist” is in a comfortable position, and not putting themselves at risk. If you hurt your back, you will be less able to help your patient!!!
A note about rewards: Food rewards (sometimes even used as encouragement or “bribery”) must be used consciously and conscientiously. Remember that most physio patients are doing this because they aren’t up to “real” exercise yet, and weight management needs to be carefully considered. It’s okay to use some of the kibble out of the dinner ration for treats. It’s also okay to use a special squeaky toy, a warm touch of your hand, or a congratulatory voice as a reward instead of food. One seldom remembered rule of training is that, once a behaviour is learned, an intermittent awesome reward can often be more powerful than rewarding each individual success.
These exercises are intended to increase weight bearing strength in the legs, and core muscle strength. It also helps the sensory nerves in the feet perceive their spatial location.
One-leg lifts– With the patient on secure footing, and the person kneeling next to the animal, lift one hind leg. Hold in a comfortable (to the dog!) position for 5-10 seconds, and replace the foot to the floor. Repeat the same process on the other leg. Alternate left to right five times. Perform this daily. Each day, try to add a few seconds to the hold.
Two-leg lifts- With the patient standing between you and the wall, head and tail to left and right of therapist, carefully lift first one back leg, and then the opposing front leg (eg. left forepaw with right hind). As above, hold for 5-10 seconds, and replace the feet carefully to the floor. Alternate to the other legs. Each day, try to extend the hold for a few seconds.,/p>
Stair standing – Get your dog to stand at the bottom of a staircase, with the front two feet up a comfortable number of stairs. This can also be done with the front legs on a stable sofa or chair (not a rocking chair!). This exercise can be done as a simple stand to increase weight bearing at the hind legs, or can be increased in complexity and fun by having the dog walk sideways a step and back, or gently nudging the hips so the dog needs to reposition his feet for balance.
Body balance – Depending on the size of your patient, use may use a foam cushion or an air mattress for this exercise. The purpose is to have all four paws on the mattress, and have them stand there, working on their core muscles to maintain their balance.
Slalom– this is best done with lots of space. The goal is to have your pet walk, on leash and with lots of room between points, weaving in and out between a line of flags/pylons/ books to encourage flexibility and the alternating of weight bearing on left and right feet. The “S” pattern may be shortened over time, which increases the bend at the ribs/waist required to get around the next post. Always start with lots of space, and remember, you need to walk before your run!!
Sit to Stand- Ensuring good footing, and likely needing a couple pieces of kibble for bribery, get your patient to do a proper sit in front of you. If your dog has knee issues especially, this may be very difficult. You may only get 1-2 or no proper sits to start with. But, don’t accept less than proper. Only reward the proper, knees equally set on either side, sit. Once your patient can do one, slowly increase the number of sits at a time. You can do a whole sequence of sits across the floor – sit – stand – sit – stand…. It’s fun! Once your dog is comfortable with a sequence, slowly increase the pace til the speed challenges your pet. Make it a game! Remember, you need to only count/reward the proper sit. Lazy sits don’t help range of motion and strength.
Cavaletti Walking – Again, this needs some space! The purpose of this exercise is to make your pet pick up their back feet – muscle strength, knee flexion, and sensation are the goals here. Picture laying four to six 2×4’s in sequence in your yard. Depending on your dog, that may be too solid, or too high even. Twisted tea towels or bath sheets, and wrapping paper rolls can work perfectly well, too. The bars need be spaced the same distance as the height of the point of the pet’s shoulder to the floor. With your furry friend on leash, walk them over the poles, rewarding them for making it to the other side without kicking the poles.