Old pets can benefit from physical therapy

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About 12 years ago, some physical therapy specialists realized that many of the same techniques and equipment used to help humans could benefit animals -- especially dogs. Since then, a new field, canine rehabilitation, has blossomed.

Canine rehabilitation focuses on improving a dog's ability to move while reducing pain and the need for medicine.

For example, walking in sand and mulch pits can help a dog learn how to move about on shifting surfaces or uneven ground. Exercise balls help with balance; braces help with torn ligaments; treadmills help build leg strength. In swimming pools, water allows a dog to move many muscles at once without having to put weight on its joints. Obstacle courses help improve an animal's ability to go over and under things.

Animal physical therapists don't always use specialized equipment. They know that their most important tool is their hands: Massages improve blood circulation, and moving the pet's affected joints increases flexibility.

Let's meet some patients at VCA Veterinary Referral Associates in Gaithersburg, Md.

Gus, a 9-year-old boxer, is recovering from knee surgery. Several times a week, he performs PT using an underwater treadmill. Unlike regular treadmills, this one uses water to help support Gus' body as he runs. The water level starts at his hips and is lowered as his legs get stronger and can carry more of his own weight.

Roxy, a 12-year-old German shepherd, has arthritis in her spine. Stepping over raised bars, walking around cones, and doing stair-step stretches may improve her strength and mobility so she won't need to have an operation.

Renee Mills, who does pet therapy and runs the rehabilitation program at the Gaithersburg facility, suggests that if you are interested in learning more about a career in physical therapy for pets, you should talk to local veterinarians, volunteer at an animal shelter and take science courses in school.

"We really get to make a difference in a pet's quality of life," she said.

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