If your dog is recovering from injury or surgery, canine physical therapy is frequently the next step in the healing process. Dog physical therapy is an adaptation of the same types of techniques and modalities used for humans. The goal is to decrease pain while increasing increase mobility, function, and overall quality of life.
Here you’ll find an overview of the variety of different treatments and their pros and cons. While many treatments can be done at home, we note when they require a session with a professional. Most advanced techniques are best done under the care of a professional, especially if they involve specialized equipment.
Treatments tend to fall into one of two categories: manual therapy or therapeutic exercise
Manual Therapy for Dogs
Manual therapy refers to techniques used to improve the movement of joints, muscles, and other soft tissue.
Also called cryotherapy, cold therapy constricts blood vessels. It can be used following injuries, heavy exercise, or for up to two weeks following surgery. For more information watch our video below.
- Pros: Prevents harmful inflammation; decreases swelling, pain, and overall healing time.
- Cons: Only effective when used immediately and up to two weeks following surgery or injury.
Thermotherapy, or heat therapy, has the opposite effect of cold therapy. Warm, moist heat penetrates more deeply into tissues than dry heat. This treatment is best used before exercise. For more information watch our video below
- Pros: Increases blood flow, tissue metabolism, and stretch-ability; stimulates the healing phase.
- Cons: Must wait 72 hours following an injury or surgery; must be extremely cautious with heat levels.
Joint Mobilization, Passive Range of Motion
Joint mobilization, also called passive range of motion (PROM), moves joints through their range of motion while the dog is lying down. For more information watch our video below.
- Pros: Prevents muscle and joint tightness; increases blood flow, lymphatic flow, and synovial fluid production, which helps maintain cartilage; enhances joint lubrication.
- Cons: Does not increase endurance or strength; doesn’t prevent muscle atrophy; the dog must be completely relaxed and willing for it to work.
Massage is a type of manual therapy that uses the healing power of touch to help soothe and promote healing throughout the entire body, not just the affected area. For more information watch our video below
- Pros: Helps decrease pain, swelling, stress, and anxiety; improves circulation and maintains muscle tone.
- Cons: Best performed by a certified massage therapist, although can be done at home with a bit of research and gentle touch. Our rehab guides go into further detail.
Neuromuscular Electrical Stimulation (NMES)
Neuromuscular electrical stimulation (NMES) involves the use of low-level electrical currents that target the muscles to enhance healing.
- Pros: Prevents atrophy of muscles after injury or surgery; increases strength; helps with regeneration of muscles and their related nervous systems.
- Cons: Best done by a professional, unless you wish to purchase specialized equipment. If purchasing, you need to make sure which type of unit you are purchasing; combination units are available.
Transcutaneous Electrical Stimulation (TENS)
Like NMES, transcutaneous electrical stimulation uses low-level electrical currents, but it targets the sensory nerves to reduce pain.
- Pros: Prompts the brain to ignore the pain for a short amount of time by sending a non-painful stimulus to the affected area.
- Cons: Again, this type of dog physical therapy involves purchasing specialized equipment or a session with a professional.
This type of canine physical therapy uses sound waves to prompt deep-tissue healing. It’s ideal for soft tissue injuries, chronic arthritis, and conditions that limit joint motion.
- Pros: Increased range of motion, circulation, and wound healing; decreased pain, inflammation, and scar tissue.
- Cons: Requires specialized equipment or in-office appointment.
Laser treatments can help alleviate pain and stimulate healing through the use of deep-penetrating light.
- Pros: Non-invasive, ideal for a variety of conditions.
- Cons: Involves specialized equipment; typically requires a series of sessions to be most effective.
Acupuncture, Dry Needling
Acupuncture and dry needling both use needles to help with healing and pain. The goal of acupuncture is to promote overall healing by correcting energy imbalances in the dog’s body. Dry needling specifically targets trigger points in the affected muscles or tissues.
- Pros: Improves blood flow and oxygenation of tissues; safe for dogs of all ages and conditions.
- Cons: Usually requires a series of visits to the office; the dog must be cooperative.
Other Manual Therapy Techniques
Joint mobilization and traction
This is the use of slow, passive movements to reduce pain and regain normal joint range of motion and passive movements.
Trigger point therapy
Involves applying direct pressure to very specific “trigger points,” or knots, in muscles and fascia to release pain and tension.
Which is the application of sustained, gentle pressure across a wider area of myofascial connective tissue to restore motion and eliminate pain.
Therapeutic Exercise for Dogs
Therapeutic exercise refers to the planned performance of physical activities.
Hydrotherapy is physical therapy for dogs that involves exercises done in water. The water’s buoyancy allows your dog to work his muscles without stress on the bones and joints. The warm water is also helpful for increasing the range of motion and flexibility.
After about nine weeks of healing, hydrotherapy can be used once or twice a week for 10-minute sessions. Session costs typically range between $20 and $50, depending on the length and exercise options.
Two of the most common forms of hydrotherapy are swimming and underwater treadmill exercises. Swimming can involve the use of different currents. Underwater treadmill exercises can include walking exercises usually done on land.
- Pros: Highly effective for working for multiple muscle groups with minimal stress on the joints.
- Cons: Requires pool, specialized equipment – and a dog willing to go in the water.
Gait training involves exercises designed to improve your dog’s ability to stand and walk. They can be straightforward, such as a slow, controlled leash walk in early recovery. Your dog can graduate to slow hill walks and eventually walk up and down stairs.
- Pros: Builds endurance and strength; increases mobility; an ideal foundation for moving forward with other therapeutic exercises.
- Cons: This is a very slow, deliberate walk on a very short lead during which you need to pay acute attention to your dog’s gait and use of the affected limb; be careful not to overdo it.
Other Therapeutic Exercises
This training involves a wide range of activities, some of which can double as a therapeutic exercise for your dog. Different exercises are designed for specific results, such as:
- Muscle-building exercises, such as those involving some form of resistance.
- Coordination exercises, such as walking backward and weaving in and out of obstacles.
- Balancing exercises, like wobble boards and walking in figure eight.
You can find more details and example exercises in our Home Rehabilitation Guide.
The most effective physical therapy for dogs will include a combination of therapeutic exercise, manual therapy, and healthy habits. Diet plays a role in your dog’s healing, and quality supplements from TopDog Health & Rehabilitation can help even further. With the right physical therapy treatments and solid nutrition, your dog can regain optimum health as safely and quickly as possible.