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Dog physical therapy

The essentials

  • Physical therapy has the same functions in dogs as in humans —Injury, arthritis, chronic pain, and neurological disorders are some reasons humans and canines utilize physical therapy.
  • Recommended treatment depends on what’s wrong with your dog — There are many types of therapy, including acupuncture, massage therapy, and more. The best option will depend on your pet, their condition, and their response to treatment.
  • You can find canine physical therapy at a clinic or do exercises at home — Usually, a combination of in-office treatment and at-home exercises works best.

Physical therapy for dogs

If your dog is recovering from injury or surgery, canine physical therapy could be a beneficial next step in the healing process. While your pet may not be able to do much physically after an operation, their body needs to mend itself correctly. Targeted strengthening of the muscles is part of that process. If your dog doesn’t move around much for weeks, that period of inactivity could lead to atrophy in the very muscles that need to be recovering.

In dogs with chronic pain due to issues such as arthritis, physical therapy could help your dog’s body find a new normal with increased mobility. It can also help slow down the progress and alleviate symptoms of degenerative diseases. In general,  rehabilitation for dogs functions similarly to physical therapy for people. It can help reduce pain and improve strength, flexibility, endurance, and overall function.

When do dogs need physical therapy?

Elderly dogs suffering from arthritis, dogs with soft tissue injuries, post-surgery pets, and neurological patients can all benefit from physical therapy. It’s a non-invasive treatment with no harmful side effects if done correctly.  

👉 Before searching for a canine rehabilitation therapist, talk to your vet to determine the best approach.

Where to find physical therapy for your dog

You can often get referrals to a rehab therapy clinic from your vet. Many vet surgery centers even offer therapy post-surgery. The Certified Canine Rehabilitation Therapist program provides special training and certification for canine physical therapists. Most have at least vet tech training, but some are also licensed veterinarians. Typically, the therapist will not be a general practitioner, but in some animal hospitals that may be the case.

Rehabilitation may be covered by pet insurance — find out what is (and isn’t) included by reading our insurance coverage guide.

Types of veterinary physical therapy 

When you take your dog to physical therapy, there are a variety of treatments the therapist may try depending on your dog’s situation. If your pet doesn’t respond well to one procedure, the therapist may try something different.

Therapeutic laser. Laser treatments can help alleviate pain and stimulate healing through the use of deep-penetrating light. Your dog must wear goggles for this treatment because the powerful laser can injure their eyes. Pet parents often take this opportunity to snap some pictures of their cool new look. While this treatment is considered safe for most dogs, laser therapy should never be used in pregnant dogs or dogs with cancer. Pigments of the skin and fur color can affect laser therapy and most therapists will recommend shaving the treated area for best results.

Therapeutic ultrasound. This type of canine physical therapy uses sound waves to prompt deep-tissue healing. Each session lasts about 10-20 minutes. Dogs that are pregnant or have cancer, bone plates, or orthopedic implants should not undergo a therapeutic ultrasound, at least near the area in question. This type of therapy is also inappropriate for growing puppies because it can interfere with their bone plates.

Hydrotherapy. Water has a natural buoyancy that can help your pet exercise without putting much pressure on their injured limbs. Hydrotherapy uses this fact to its advantage and involves a series of exercises done partially underwater.

One common hydrotherapy method is the underwater treadmill. The canine rehabilitation therapist sets your dog on a treadmill, turns the water on, and before your dog can react to the water, the treadmill turns on so they have to walk. The treadmill requires your dog to walk in smooth, equal steps, and the warm water relaxes their muscles as they walk. The water level depends on the location of the area needing treatment. For example, it comes up to the knees for dogs who have had knee surgery, or to the hips to treat hip dysplasia.  Even dogs who typically don’t like water can usually undergo this treatment with no problems.

Acupuncture. If your dog struggles to sit still during vaccines, you may laugh at the suggestion of using dozens of needles to calm them. However, acupuncture and dry needling can be surprisingly relaxing. This technique uses tiny needles to help with healing and reducing pain by stimulating nerves that might not be functioning to their full potential.

Neuromuscular electrical stimulation (NMES). This technique involves the use of low-level electrical currents that target the muscles to enhance healing. The mild electrical currents mimic muscle use, which can help prevent the muscles from degenerating.

Transcutaneous electrical stimulation (TENS). Similar to NMES, TENS uses low-level electrical currents to stimulate the body. Instead of focusing on muscles, TENS targets the sensory nerves to reduce pain.

Physical therapy you can do at home with your dog

If you want to practice physical therapy with your pup at home, there’s a variety of things you can do. Of course, never force your dog to do something that makes them feel uncomfortable, as it could lead to further injury.

  • Try cold therapy — Using an ice pack on your dog may reduce their pain and inflammation by constricting blood vessels. Always keep a towel or other layer between the ice pack and your dog to prevent ice burn, and don’t keep it on your dog for more than 15 minutes at a time.
  • Consider warm therapy — A heated pad can help your dog relax and promote healing by increasing blood flow. Always keep a layer of cloth between the heating pad and your pet, and keep the heat setting on low to prevent burning. Never leave your pet on a heating pad unattended, and don’t use it on pets who can’t move on their own, since they could burn and be unable to escape.
  • Use joint mobilization Passive range of motion , or PROM, is a technique you can do to help your pet. It involves gently stretching your dog’s muscles and tendons, mimicking their natural movements. This can help your dog’s body “remember” how to function and increase blood flow. Just remember to be gentle and never force it.
  • Give a massage — Giving your pet a relaxing massage can be good for muscle cramps. There are detailed canine massage techniques if you’re interested in becoming your dog’s masseur.
  • Explore trigger point therapy — This technique involves applying direct pressure to very specific “trigger points,” or knots, in muscles and fascia to release pain and tension.
  • Practice sit, down, and stand transitions — This is an easy exercise to do if your pet knows how to sit on command. Using small treats to entice them, try to see if you can coax them into sitting and standing several times in a row to engage their muscles.   
  • Engage in “cookie stretches”Your dog may enjoy this exercise because they get rewarded with a treat at the end. Dangle a cookie or pet-safe treat in front of your dog’s face and slowly move it to one side and then the other. Lift the cookie so that your dog looks towards the ceiling, and then down to their chest level, then to the floor. This helps them stretch their neck muscles. Don’t forget to finish with the treat!

Are there risks to dog physical therapy?

Always follow the guidance of a veterinarian. Physical therapy, although considered very safe, can have complications. If done improperly, you may see no improvement or even make things worse. For example, if you self-diagnose your pet as having arthritis when they have a torn ligament, you could worsen their injury. Always seek a vet’s diagnosis before you enroll your pet in physical therapy or make any significant changes to their lifestyle to help lessen the risk of harm.

If you’re conducting exercises at home, be extra careful not to push your dog too hard because this can cause further injury. If you have any questions, ask your vet what exercises might be appropriate for them.  As long as it’s done correctly and your dog’s pain is under control, physical therapy can be a great and safe way to help with recovery and improve quality of life.

Frequently asked questions

Does my dog need physical therapy?

Does your dog suffer from limited mobility due to arthritis or other chronic illness? Has your dog recently gone through surgery and is having trouble walking? Ask your vet to see if physical therapy might be an option for your dog.

Are rehab exercises just for injured or recovering dogs?

While physical rehab exercises are beneficial for dogs recovering from surgery, dogs suffering from a chronic illness that limits their mobility such as arthritis may also find it useful. The type and frequency of the therapy sessions will depend on your dog’s condition. Always ask your vet first to see if they think physical therapy could be a good fit.

How do you give a dog physical therapy?

There are many physical therapy options, depending on your dog’s condition and temperament. Some professional therapeutic techniques include therapeutic laser, ultrasound, hydrotherapy, acupuncture, NMES, and TENS. You can also try some exercises at home to supplement therapy, or if treatment isn’t available in your area. Just be mindful of your dog’s limits and never push them.

Does physical therapy work for dogs?

If done correctly, physical therapy can strengthen muscles, increase blood flow, and reduce pain. Effective therapy depends on the individual dog and what techniques might be tailored to fit their needs.