Dear Doctor: Physical therapy for my dog?


Q My 11-year-old dog has pretty debilitating arthritis, and someone has suggested physical therapy. But that sounds ridiculous to me. How can a dog do physical therapy?

Richard Sickels
Brentwood, New York

Dear Mr. Sickels,

A Your skepticism is understandable. When a person has arthritis, one of the best things he can do to keep his range of motion from deteriorating further is strength training, also known as resistance training. It involves pushing the muscles against the resistance of weight (with weights or resistance machines) in order to keep them strong and able to make up to a significant degree for the weakness of the joints they surround. Specifically, the stronger the muscles, the better they’re able to absorb the brunt of any impact rather than leaving that work to the joints.

As you may know, strength training involves repetitive motion — doing the same exercise for eight to 12 times, stopping for 30 seconds to a minute, then repeating the set of exercises another dozen or so times. How can a dog do that?

He can’t. That’s where the physical therapy comes in. It involves passive exercise — a physical therapist moves a dog’s limbs so the muscles get exercised and thereby stronger in order to relieve the joints of much of their work.

Physical therapy for dogs has evolved into a field called canine rehabilitation medicine. It is rather new, having been approved only in the spring of 2010 as a specialty in veterinary medicine. A veterinarian has to receive specific training and take special board exams to become a diplomate in the field.

A step below becoming a diplomate is to become certified. Veterinarians — and veterinary technicians (veterinary nurses, so to speak) — can become certified in canine rehabilitation medicine by taking a series of classes and then passing a test.

The field began with physical therapists for people who had an interest in veterinary medicine. They started applying physical therapy to animals they knew personally, and it grew from there. Physical therapy has had a longer history of use for dogs who have undergone an operation and needed to regain strength as they recovered, but more and more, it is emerging as a strategy for dogs with worsening arthritis who have been moving around less and less in an effort to avoid joint pain.

Someone certified in canine physical rehabilitation might put your dog with arthritis on an underwater treadmill. A dog might be able to strengthen his leg muscles by walking without having to bear his entire weight in the process; the water eases some of the burden. Your dog might be given regular swimming sessions as well. Again, the water would allow him to exercise his muscles without stressing his joints.

A physical therapist for dogs will probably also teach you exercises to perform on your pet at home. In other words, exercise will be done to your dog to increase his range of motion. For instance, you might be taught how to push against your dog’s front legs in such a way as to extend and contract the muscles in his elbows, so it will be easier for him to walk if he has elbow arthritis. A dog bears 60 percent of his weight on his front legs, and the elbows thrust forward as he walks. If there is arthritis in the elbow joints, walking will cause pain, but your flexing the surrounding muscles on a regular basis with sets of repetitions will increase his range of motion enough to give his joints a break.

What you put into your dog’s physical therapy can really help give him his life back. Small, incremental improvements in muscle strength can make big differences in his daily life — allowing him to stand easily to go to the bathroom or get up and walk over to his water bowl when he is thirsty. You won’t turn him into a puppy again, but you can make his life much more comfortable, and therefore happier.

Your dog’s vet may be able to help you find someone who specializes in canine rehabilitation medicine. (Anyone can hang out a shingle that says “canine rehabilitation medicine” so it’s important to find someone who is truly credentialed.) You can also go to the website of the Canine Rehabilitation Institute,, which can help you locate a veterinarian board-certified in canine rehabilitation or a vet or vet tech certified in the field. Good luck!

She views the floor as if it’s an ice skating rink
Q We have highly polished wood floors throughout our downstairs and only a few small rugs; the floors themselves are the decor. The problem is, the dog we’ve just taken in is scared to death of them. There’s a long hallway when you first come into the house, and she has to be dragged down it. What are we to do?

Harriet Fitz
Dearborn Heights, Michigan

Dear Ms. Fitz,

A The solution — and you’re not going to like it — is to put down runners, at least at first. Slippery floors strike terror into some dogs, usually puppies, but dogs of any age can be affected.

A runner can help get a dog out onto the middle of the “ice.” Once she’s there, you can work to distract her with toys, treats, and gentle stroking. After a while your dog may very well be able to handle smooth, shiny wood floors. Be aware, however, that some highly polished floors really are slippery and therefore present an actual risk of falling for the dog. (Remember, she does not have shoes or socks to give her any traction.) If that’s the case, you’ll need to come up with a solution you find aesthetically acceptable — perhaps a beautiful, plush Persian rug, or something along those lines.

Slippery floors become that much more of a problem for dogs later in life, when they might have limited mobility and find it difficult to go from a lying to a standing position. They might find themselves skidding about. If that’s the situation, you really will need a runner to keep your dog mobile. One family we know went so far as to carpet a hallway that had shiny linoleum.

Keep in mind that “later in life” for a dog means not that many more years left. In that light, interfering with the look of your home to keep your dog comfortable as well as safe is a small sacrifice.


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