When Bryan Lindsay’s miniature dachshund ruptured a vertebral disc that paralyzed her hind end last April, he faced a choice: pay $7,500 for an operation to remove pressure from her spinal cord, with no guarantee that she would ever walk again, or try twice-weekly rehab for $80 a session.
He and his wife, Stephanie, opted for the rehab, which included laser treatments to stimulate healing, workouts on an underwater treadmill and acupuncture.
“I was really skeptical at first, but to see her progress over those next six weeks was astonishing,” says Bryan, who lives in Willard, Missouri. “The first time, they had to support her back end on the treadmill. A week or so later, she was walking but limping. The last time, she was just trotting along.” The 3-year-old dachshund, Hartley, suffered from intervertebral disc disease, a common, hereditary disease in dachshunds. She is now nearly normal, with only a slight “swagger” to remind Bryan of the trauma she endured.
Canine rehab is a growing field. This year Americans are expected to spend almost $19 billion on veterinary care, including rehab, up from about $15 billion five years ago, according to the American Pet Products Association in Stamford, Connecticut.
Rehab is now routinely recommended for dogs after debilitating surgery and injuries, and also is increasingly being used as an alternative to surgery and as a method to stimulate elderly dogs’ brains and give them a sense of renewed purpose.
Veterinary colleges are placing more emphasis on rehab training and offering rehab services, and stand-alone rehab facilities have sprung up around the country.
“Awareness has increased tremendously, and it has become quite mainstream,” says Dr. Darryl Millis, a professor of orthopedic surgery at the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine in Knoxville and director of the arthritis and sports medicine program at the college’s Veterinary Medical Center. “The expectations of clients are to have rehabilitation on their pets similar to what they might have for their own injury or surgery.”
There are several organizations devoted to promoting canine rehab research and education as well as certifying rehabbers. The American College of Veterinary Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation in Camas, Washington, founded about a decade ago, offers board certification based on advanced training and a rigorous exam. To date, ACVSMR has certified 147 veterinary physical therapists in the U.S. and 235 worldwide. The University of Tennessee’s Canine Rehabilitation Certificate Program has graduated 2,200 vets, vet techs, vet nurses and physical therapists for humans over its 20 years in existence.
The Canine Rehabilitation Institute in Wellington, Florida, runs a training program that has 1,360 graduates, compared to 370 about a decade ago. Physical therapists for humans also are signing up for the institute’s courses to learn how to apply their techniques and skills to dogs.
Interest is growing globally, too. The institute now offers its training program in Australia, Switzerland, England, Belgium and Brazil and lectures at conferences around Europe, according to institute founder Janet Van Dyke. The University of Tennessee certificate program is offered in about 15 countries.
Millis, a canine rehab pioneer who collaborated on one of the first rehab textbooks, started out in the field 28 years ago, when rehab consisted of walks, cage rest and stretching. Now acupuncture, laser and sound-wave therapy, electrical stimulation and underwater treadmills are the treatments of choice to promote healing and help manage pain. Chronic conditions such as arthritis and spinal cord injuries are managed with long-term rehab to improve mobility and circulation and maintain muscle mass. Doggy wheelchairs are commonplace, and dog owners can choose from many models or have them custom-built.
The University of Tennessee’s Veterinary Medical Center has kept up with advances in the field by building a 4,500-square-foot facility with underwater treadmills, a swimming pool, a hyperbaric oxygen chamber for wound treatment, and a large exercise area where dogs are put through their paces over raised rails and balance on wobble boards and inflatable discs. The facility’s two staff veterinarians, Millis and Dr. Marti Drum, who specializes in sports medicine, treat about 20 outpatients a day and tend to several inpatients.
Still, Millis sees room for improvement in raising awareness so dog owners seek treatment before the injury or disease has progressed. It's "frustrating," he says, to see dogs with advanced orthopedic conditions like severe arthritis and hip dysplasia because their conditions could have been treated sooner. To help dog owners recognize symptoms of lameness and educate them on how to seek appropriate treatment before the condition has advanced, Millis launched MyLameDog.com. He also has a series of books on orthopedic issues, the first of which, “The Dog Owner’s Guide to Hip Dysplasia,” is available on Amazon.
The growing body of research on canine rehab points to many similarities between humans’ and animals’ ability to recover, including the benefits they reap from early treatment and their ability to make gains over a sustained period of time. Human stroke victims’ recovery was once thought to peak within the first six months after the stroke, but recent research has shown that with intensive rehabilitation, stroke patients can continue to progress for decades; the same is true of dogs. In cases such as a severe spinal cord injury or degenerative disease, both humans and dogs may be limited in their potential to improve.
“If you have a dog that’s driven and wants to get better and you are seeing even the most minute improvements, keep going,” says Dr. Kara Amstutz, owner of River Canine Rehabilitation in Springfield, Missouri, where Hartley was treated, and an instructor for the Canine Rehabilitation Institute. “I have dogs with chronic neurological conditions, and we’re out six to eight months, and we’re still looking at improvements.”
Terri Martin believes that long-term rehab created a better quality of life for her elderly cockapoo, Biscuit, who passed away two years ago at age 22. Biscuit suffered from chronic arthritis that limited his mobility and led to boredom. “They challenged him,” says Martin, who lives in Springfield and brought Biscuit to Amstutz’s clinic for treatment twice a week for a year. “They would have him follow an obstacle course to get a treat. After therapy, he seemed more engaged and spry for the rest of the day.”
Rehabbers will train the dog’s human to do exercises at home, which can help reduce costs, if the owner has the time and ability and the pet doesn’t require high-tech treatment. “You can get good results in a home setting if you have an owner that is engaged in the process, and the rehab person instructs them on how and why to do things,” Amstutz says.
The clinicians may recommend modifications to the home to aid the dog’s mobility and prevent re-injury, such as carpeting for a dog that has trouble with traction on slippery floors. The Lindsays outfitted their home with ramps to stop Hartley from jumping on and off the bed and the porch and re-injuring her spine. She still goes to the clinic every three weeks for treatment, and at home, Bryan and Stephanie help her stretch her legs and rub the pads on her paws to stimulate the nerves. And they celebrate the comeback of the sweet, “smart as a whip” pup they had feared they would lose, Bryan says.
“We were deciding whether we were going to put her to sleep or whether she’d be paralyzed but be able to live with us,” he recalls. “We didn’t think a full recovery was ever going to happen.”