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Canine physical therapy is a growing field of alternative veterinary treatment that can be very beneficial for dogs. It’s more commonly referred to as canine rehabilitation therapy, since human physical therapists actually trademarked the term physical therapy.

What Can Rehabilitation Therapy Help With?

Arthritic dogs and those recovering from debilitating orthopedic surgery are typical patients for the therapy. It’s also used to support dogs with other musculoskeletal problems or neurological conditions. Implementing these drug-free, non-invasive treatments can increase mobility and strength. It can also promote faster recovery, reduce chronic pain and, most importantly, improve a dog’s quality of life.

Obese dogs can experience significant strain on their joints and suffer from mobility issues and pain. Developing a rehab plan incorporating gentle, low-cardio, and low-impact exercises can help shift the pounds.

Competitive canine athletes can benefit too, since injuries while taking part in things like agility or flyball are common. Rehabilitation therapy can aid recovery, promote optimal conditioning, and increase body position awareness.

Senior dog laying next to a leash indoors.
©Sue Harper -

What Can You Expect at a Consultation?

Rehabilitation professionals will look at the medical history provided by the vet. They’ll also conduct a thorough physical examination, analyzing your dog’s gait, range of movement, and muscle mass. The practitioner will also look to you for information. You should carefully observe your dog’s body language, movements, and behavior for signs of pain.

The Importance of a Vet Referral

A certified canine rehab practitioner shouldn’t commence treatment without a vet referral. For dogs with chronic arthritis or other ongoing musculoskeletal problems, sessions commonly coincide with administration of traditional medicines. A growing number of vets have certified team members on-site who can support your dog — and, if not, they’ll often recommend a specialist.

Dr. Jennifer Devine Fritzler heads up the rehabilitation department at the family-run Rose Rock Veterinary Hospital in Oklahoma. “It’s very important to search for veterinarians who are certified in veterinary rehabilitation,” she says, “especially those who are recognized as members of the American Association of Rehabilitation Veterinarians (AARV). The AARV has established Model Standards for Veterinary Physical Rehabilitation Practice that all members are to abide by and strive for.”

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Rehabilitation Treatment Options for Dogs

A rehabilitation plan can involve daily or weekly appointments, and they often take place over several months. Treatments are usually multifaceted. “There are many modalities available that should be incorporated for a successful, well-rounded rehabilitation therapy program,” Dr. Devine Fritzler advises.

These are some of the most common ones:

Manual Therapies

With massage therapy and chiropractic techniques, the practitioner will manipulate the joints and muscles manually. As well as promoting mobility, massaging can improve the circulation, offer pain relief, and help your dog to feel more relaxed.

Exercise Programs

Using a wide variety of exercises promotes increased movement, muscle strength, and flexibility. They can also be fantastic for encouraging body awareness and better balance. Such activities can include the use of exercise balls, balance blocks, therabands, or wobble boards. Incremental weight and resistance training are also helpful in some cases.


Depending on the case complexity, treatments may involve laser therapy, ultrasounds, TENS machines, and other electrical muscle or nerve stimulation. These can assist with pain relief and prevention of muscle atrophy and can also aid in healing and reduce inflammation.

Golden Retriever swimming wearing a life vest fetching a ball.
©Wasitt -

Hydrotherapy and Other Complementary Treatments

Swimming guided by a canine rehabilitator, referred to as hydrotherapy, allows for buoyancy and puts minimal strain on recovering or painful joints. It also promotes a good range of movement, and the water resistance helps to tone and strengthen.

Sometimes hydrotherapy will include the use of a treadmill in the water. But Dr. Devine Fritzler stresses the importance of working with a certified practitioner, since misuse of underwater treadmills can cause further injury.

Certified professionals may also introduce acupuncture as part of a treatment plan. This involves inserting needles into particular pressure points on the dog’s body to stimulate the nervous system.

Help Your Dog Stay Relaxed During A Session

If you’re lucky, you may have a dog who thrives on attention and physical contact. For them, regular massaging and being showered with affection will be a relaxing experience. Some dogs even fall asleep during treatment.

For other pups, particularly if they’re in a great deal of pain or generally nervous, it’s initially a stressful experience. So selecting a practitioner who is calm, patient, and reassuring will ensure a more positive experience for your dog. Skilled practitioners will incorporate low-stress handling techniques and avoid forcing or restraining your dog where possible.

Soft Coated Wheaten Terrier laying in a chair at home.
Cavan Images/Getty Images Plus

At-Home Management Techniques

It can help to get your dog used to being massaged at home (which is also just a relaxing way to bond with your dog). Be aware of your dog’s body language — if they’re uncomfortable, work on introducing things more slowly. Make sure you have lots of yummy treats on hand.

The practitioner will likely give you exercises to do with your dog at home, and you may also have to make some adjustments to your dog’s living space. This may include using non-slip mats to help your pup with balance or steps to allow them to get up and down from the sofa or bed safely.

Some dogs will require orthotics or other assistive devices to promote proper limb use, and regular at-home exercises can help with a faster and more successful recovery.

A Bright Future

Since introducing their rehabilitation department in 2015, Dr. Devine Fritzler says, the hospital has seen success with many canine patients, across post-operative, senior, and sports medicine. “We also have many patients with cancer and degenerative diseases that we offer palliative care and pain management therapies to make them comfortable as their conditions progress.”

And it’s this ability to care for unwell dogs without relying on invasive medicine that is making canine rehabilitation therapy increasingly popular among dog owners.

Related article: Drug-Free Pain Relief Options for Dogs You Can Use at Home
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