Working in Animal Physical Rehabilitation

By Julie Weyers

The wagging tails and kisses make this job worthwhile.

Left: Julie giving Samantha massage therapy

Complementary therapies are quite common among people, but are also becoming increasingly well known for our pets. Humans have therapy after surgery, so why can’t our pets be allowed the same treatment?

I have always loved animals… I have an inborn passion to help them. It was from this desire that I ended up in the career of animal physical rehabilitation. This job is rewarding and sometimes you just can’t help the tears, mostly of joy, but once in a while heart-wrenching sadness as your efforts are just not enough. 

So what is my job like? Sometimes it keeps me up at night, hoping and praying and researching different plans, but mostly it makes my heart smile, knowing I am making a difference.

And where else can you work where the clients never complain and continue to wag their tails even though they are not sure who you are or what you are about to do?

Doing body work or massage on an animal varies from one animal to the next. You can tell a human coming for a massage what to do and they lie down ready to enjoy, but try saying that to a six-month-old puppy that is full of spirit and just wants to play. All the stroking in the world won’t hold it down so we resort to toys or treats, but never force as this would form a negative association for the dog. 

Helping with recovery

The older dogs on the other hand seem to just love the massage and will lie and take in every minute of it, groaning with thanks as you ease their old aches. While post-surgical sessions may display some tenderness, we do what we can to ease the pain and make the patient comfortable. For those who are paralysed, it can be hard working with them as you continue to hope for some kind of response. You hope for just a little flinch as you tickle the toes or move the limb to keep the joints from getting too stiff from no use. Once you get even the slightest movement or response, your heart skips a beat and you realise that recovery has begun.

I also make use of the underwater treadmill to regain muscle memory and mass, as well as help recover neural feedback. The first few sessions can be daunting for any dog: they are in this enclosed area, then we add water… and then the treadmill starts moving. Even dogs that love the water get confused when the treadmill starts moving, so it can be very daunting for them. To help, on occasion someone will go in with the dog or we offer toys and treats and lots of encouragement. That being said, we also have the naturals that act as though they have been walking on a treadmill all their lives.

Left: Samantha on the water treadmill

For the paralysed dogs the underwater treadmill is an important part of their progress and we get in the treadmill with them and literally move their hind legs in a walking motion. The water helps support their body weight so they can at least get the feeling of standing. Some, however, are not even able to hold themselves up. 

A job worthwhile

As the sessions progress, most dogs become more comfortable and simply get on with the session. It is so satisfying as the post-surgery dogs start using their injured limbs more and dogs increase their muscle mass to help support orthopaedic conditions such as hip dysplasia. I smile, of course, when there is the little twitch or push that I have been waiting for in the paralysed dogs, letting me know the nerves are waking up.

As with any injury, we can’t do all the work during the session and a lot of responsibility rests on the owners and whether they are doing the exercises with the patient at home.

Is my job worth it? Absolutely. If you could choose to help the healing of a dog; to see this incredible process unfold before your very eyes… would you say no? Of course, the wagging tails and kisses at the end make it even more worthwhile. Bottom line – with God by my side, I will help your dog any way I possibly can!

Cojiro’s Story

Cojiro was a normal dog and, being a Lab, he grew up loving everyone. He found his first home in Italy, followed by a trip to South Africa. Here he had a German Shepherd friend that passed, but he soon found a chicken as his friend (only in Africa!) who regrettably also died.

At 12 years of age he’d had a long, healthy life, until the day he was knocked down by a car. The result of the accident unfortunately meant that he had no use of his hind limbs. The diagnosis was that one of his spinal nerves was compressed and inhibited by a vertebra. At his age the vet spelled out the risks of the surgery, but the owners were determined and two days later Cojiro went for spinal surgery.

Left: Cojiro learning to walk again

After some rest time following surgery, Cojiro had to learn to walk again. He began with acupuncture for pain, massage to stimulate bloodflow and underwater treadmill exercises to regain muscle memory and mass, as well as recover neural feedback. At this stage he had already lost a lot of muscle mass. 

Initially Cojiro stayed at the centre to receive daily treatments. In the underwater treadmill, the water assisted in holding his body weight, and with someone in the treadmill with him to literally guide and facilitate his hind legs in a walking motion, the process started. 

Getting stronger

Cojiro began to strengthen and push up slightly on the hind limbs, showing a willingness to stand. It was time to go home, although he would still have to come in for therapy. Now it was time for the owners to be diligent and perform daily therapeutic exercises and assist with standing in an endeavour to activate his muscles.

Fortunately Cojiro was not incontinent, which can occur with many spinal cases, and he soon learnt that if he barked at the owners they would take him out or turn him. The owners listened closely and soon understood the type of bark for “toilet” time or to move him if he was uncomfortable.

Slowly Cojiro could stand for longer periods and he then began showing movement in the hind limbs. Weeks after starting the rehabilitation process, Cojiro arrived at the centre walking with only minor assistance from the owners. From here he has shown tremendous improvement and presently enjoys short walks like a normal dog.

Dogs can learn to walk again with the use of different modalities of treatment, along with lots of hard work and encouragement from their owners.

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