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let’s get physical: a primer on rehab therapy

  • Dr. Kim
  • Posted by Dr. Kim Smyth on
    Staff Veterinarian and Pet Health Writer of Petplan

Physical rehabilitation is the treatment of an injury or illness to decrease pain and restore function. If you’ve ever had a chronic injury or orthopedic injury, you know how important physical therapy is. Though it is definitely hard work, the benefits you get pay off in the form of a faster recovery period and a stronger body. The same benefits apply to our four-legged family members.

Veterinary physical therapy is a rapidly growing field. Many vets practice it in their own facilities, but more and more commonly we are seeing standalone practices that specialize in canine and feline physical therapy. Specially trained veterinarians and technicians use physical therapy to restore function and resolve pain.

There are so many medical conditions that can benefit from physical therapy, including (but not limited to):

  • Arthritis
  • Obesity
  • Hip and/or elbow dysplasia
  • Muscle injuries
  • Amputations
  • Intervertebral Disc Disease
  • Hip and other joint replacements
  • Fractures
  • Joint dislocations
  • OCD of the shoulder
  • Degenerative myelopathy
  • Vestibular diseases

Just as your physical therapist may have used multiple modalities to treat your maladies, so, too, do veterinary physical therapists (though our animal friends may need a bit more coaxing onto the treadmill than we do). Once our pets get the hang of the apparatuses, though, they tend to do very well, and even get to have a little fun.

Each physical therapy session will be tailored to fit the needs of the individual patient, but you can expect to see one or more of the following activities incorporated into the sessions.


Pets will be asked to participate in exercises. Passive range of motion exercises employ the therapist to gently move joints through their natural range of motion. This will improve your pet’s flexibility. Stretching exercises also increase flexibility, as well as improve circulation.

Active exercises will strengthen your pet’s muscles. Walking on land and underwater treadmills and walking up and down stairs will strengthen individual muscles as well as groups of muscles. Other active exercises utilize props, such as physiotherapy balls (yoga balls), balance boards, and therabands for resistance training and regaining balance.

Proprioceptive exercises help our pets relearn where their feet are, which is especially useful in spinal injury cases.  Pets will be encouraged to step over or around gates in an effort to get them to get more comfortable with their foot placement.

Hot and Cold Therapy

Heat and cold therapy both decrease inflammation and pain, but the key is in their timing. Cold therapy is most useful in the first 72 hours after the injury or surgery. After this time, heat is most beneficial in reducing inflammation and easing pain.

Class IV Laser

Also known as cold laser or low-level light laser therapy, this procedure uses a laser to stimulate healing and address inflammation at the cellular level. Cold lasers are used to encourage wound healing (including surgical incisions) and decrease post-operative pain. They also are routinely used to address tendon or ligament injuries and are part of the multi-modal therapy used to combat pain from osteoarthritis.


Massage does wonders to improve circulation and decrease muscle spasms and pain. We all know how relaxing massages can be – the added benefits of decreased anxiety also apply to our pets.

If your pet has a chronic injury or degenerative disease, speak to your veterinarian about physical therapy. If your veterinarian doesn’t offer those services at their clinic, there is surely someone nearby where you can be referred. The best news is physical therapy is covered by Petplan pet insurance, so your pet can reap the benefits of rehab without breaking your budget!


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