Pets get their groove back with rehabilitation

Rose open house

Rose, one of the WCVM’s pet rehabilitation patients, exercises in the Veterinary Medical Centre’s aquatic treadmill. Photo: Christina Weese.

Meet Rose, a four-year-old, shepherd-border collie cross with alert, intelligent eyes. Judging by the way Rose tears around the dog park these days, you’d never guess that two years ago she was facing down a debilitating injury that made it painful to walk.

Her owner, Jan Morris of Saskatoon, Sask., first noticed something was wrong when Rose showed an occasional limp after her daily walk. At first the limp went away; then one day it didn’t. Morris made the decision to bring Rose in to the Western College of Veterinary Medicine’s Veterinary Medical Centre for a checkup.

“Rose was always a really fit, really intense dog,” says Morris. “She would jump up to catch Frisbees, stuff like that. I think what may have happened is that she landed wrong and injured herself, just like a football player might do.”

After examining Rose, WCVM veterinarians suspected that she had partially ruptured her cranial cruciate ligament, one of the ligaments that helps to stabilize the knee. The injury is comparable to an ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) tear in humans. Morris didn’t hesitate when her veterinarian recommended surgery.

“Rose was only two years old — it was just the best way for her to have a good quality of life,” says Morris.

Rose underwent a tibial plateau leveling osteotomy (TPLO). TPLO surgery has a very good success rate: 85 to 90 per cent of dogs are able to return to pre-surgery activity levels (non-surgical management of ruptured cruciate ligaments in large dogs has about a 30 to 50 per cent success rate). In fact, many dogs start to put weight on their injured limb just days after surgery.

Rose exercising in aquatic treadmill

Jan Morris: “Rose loves the underwater treadmill. Even in the beginning when she couldn’t do very much, it kept her mind active.” Photo: Christina Weese.

For Rose, the surgery itself went well, but she encountered complications during her recovery. Rose developed pain and swelling of her patellar tendon (patellar tendinosis) fairly early in her recovery. Although this is normally seen in dogs that are too active following surgery, it was unclear why it occurred in Rose since Morris had been closely following post-operative instructions.

“Because of the swelling, Rose’s progress with walking was delayed,” explains Morris. “So rehabilitation became even more important to Rose’s recovery.”

Enter clinical associate Dr. Romany Pinto and the WCVM’s pet rehabilitation program. Rose began therapy 11 days after surgery. She was using a sling to get around and was just beginning to put weight on the recovering leg.

Pinto started with a range of therapies to help ease Rose’s pain and swelling. “In the beginning, we used heat and massage therapy for sore muscles. Low-level laser was used to help speed healing; it may also be beneficial for reducing pain and swelling. Ice was also used at the end of a session to reduce pain and inflammation,” explains Pinto, a certified canine rehabilitation practitioner (CCRP).

Dr. Romany Pinto and her patient Rose. Photo: Christina Weese.

Passive range of motion exercises — flexing and extending all of the joints in Rose’s injured leg — helped to gradually improve the range of motion in her knee and maintain the normal range of motion in her ankle and hip which can be reduced when dogs are avoiding use of the limb. As well, Pinto used specific massage techniques on the patellar tendon to help prevent adhesions as the tendon healed.

Basic, low-impact strengthening exercises such as weight-shifting and wobble boarding gently encouraged Rose to start using her legs again.

With Pinto’s guidance, Morris practised many of these therapies with Rose at home. But a large part of her job was keeping Rose quiet – and with an active young dog, that’s not always an easy task. One exercise that proved to be a godsend was the therapy centre’s underwater treadmill.

“Rose loves the underwater treadmill. Even in the beginning when she couldn’t do very much, it kept her mind active,” says Morris.

“It provided controlled, low-impact exercise that Rose really enjoyed,” says Pinto. “We started with three minutes and a high water level to minimize impact on her leg, and we gradually increased her time from there. It can be tough to get many of these dogs to rest while they heal, but this type of exercise can make a very big difference in how easy it is to keep them quiet at home.”

Tweak, one of Dr. Romany Pinto’s feline patients, warms up for some cavaletti exercises. Tweak has recovered from a radius ulna (forearm) fracture. Photo: Christina Weese.

By the time Rose’s X-rays confirmed that she was ready for more active therapy, she was no longer using the sling and was walking comfortably on all four legs. She quickly progressed to running, jumping and doing all of her normal activities without any sign of lameness.

“Rose is really alert and likes games,” says Morris. “So rehab was a lot of fun for her because there’s always a challenge.”

Although Rose is a highly motivated, “overachiever” type of dog, Pinto explains that they try to find ways to work with all different types of pets, including cats. “Some love food treats, for others it’s toys or praise. If an animal is nervous or isn’t motivated to participate, we can still find ways to do the exercises.”

For example, Pinto may simply pick up a pet’s leg to work on weight-shifting or balance. But with the motivated pets, she says it’s easy to turn therapy into a game by asking them to shake a paw, then turning that into a weight-shifting exercise.

Mocha, a three-year-old Pomeranian, is working to regain the use of its left forelimb after treatment for a fibrocartilagenous embolism. Part of Mocha’s therapy is some exercise on a wobble disk. Photo: Christina Weese.

“Most animals do really well and enjoy it. They think it’s a big treat to come here. It can also be good for dogs that are afraid of the vet or have socialization issues.”

Owners may have different goals for rehab from speeding post-surgery recovery, to helping to improve mobility in pets with chronic conditions such as arthritis, to fitness-enhancing programs.

“The WCVM’s pet therapy programs are very flexible,” adds Pinto. “We offer programs that vary from three times a week to a one-time visit so owners learn what they can do with their pets at home. We can put together a program that works for anyone even if they work during the day or live out of town.”

Meanwhile, Rose continues to work towards her goal of being the fastest dog at the dog park. Morris still brings her in for rehabilitation sessions once a month to check her knee and for some play time in the underwater treadmill.

“I can tell Rose feels special when she leaves a therapy session,” says Morris. “She’s tired and happy and everything’s good.”

Christina Weese, BDes, is a freelance writer, graphic designer, photographer and avid equestrian who makes her home in Saskatoon, Sask. Since 2008 she has also been the editor for the Canadian Arabian Horse News.


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