Application of Physical Therapy Techniques to our Canine Patients:
The Current Science and Research Opportunities

Speaker: Janet B. Van Dyke, DVM, DACVSMR, Canine Rehabilitation Institute

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What is Veterinary Rehabilitation? It is the treatment of physical injury or illness in an animal to decrease pain and restore function. The physical therapist’s approach to the patient emphasizes a proper, thorough soft tissue analysis, and does special testing to allow determination of specific soft tissue impairments, such as tendinopathies. There is an emphasis on creating and meeting goals that are functional.

In human medical practice, physical therapy is considered the standard of care for orthopedic and neurosurgical patients. The field of veterinary rehabilitation has been expanding exponentially over the past decade. What is it? And what science is there to support its use? Veterinary rehabilitation is the treatment of physical injury or illness in an animal to decrease pain and restore function. Probably more important is to realize what it is not: the use of equipment such as underwater treadmills and lasers to treat patients. Physical therapy is a well-established allied healthcare profession requiring 4-5 years of post-graduate training. The notion that veterinarians can become physical therapists by attending a short certification course is inappropriate. Rather, we should embrace a collaborative relationship with physical therapy professionals and scientists.  

The application of physical therapeutic techniques in veterinary practice is primarily a new diagnostic algorithm focusing upon the soft tissue impairments that cause loss of normal function in our patients. The pursuit of evidence-based medicine to promote improved decision-making is well established. In veterinary medicine, Cochrane-style reviews are rare due to the lack of adequate case numbers. It has been suggested that there is insufficient evidence to support the use of physical therapeutic techniques on animal patients, however if the study of canine stifle osteoarthritis is viewed as an example, the current evidence would not support the use of our most popular surgical procedures. The debate about surgical versus ‘conservative’ management of human ACL injuries rages on with a recent review of the literature concluding that “at present there are no evidence-based arguments to recommend systematic surgical reconstruction to any patient who tore his ACL.” Similar debates regarding surgical versus conservative management of low back pain in human patients continue as well.  

“Conservative management” in veterinary practice today is quite different from that offered in the past. By applying techniques that have been proven in human medicine, we are able to greatly improve the recovery from injury and illness in our canine patients. For example, the therapeutic exercise equipment list includes physioballs, therabands, rocker boards, cavaletti poles, and a treadmill.

These ‘new’ techniques involve primarily manual therapies and therapeutic exercise techniques. As we review the human literature, we are discovering many studies from years ago were originally completed using canine models. This ‘bench’ research can now be applied to our clinical patients and advanced using newer research tools. We are just beginning to pursue this research, and many questions remain. The advent of the new American College of Veterinary Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation will drive this necessary area of research forward.  

As the public increasingly expects state-of-the-art care for their canine companions, including appropriate rehabilitation from injuries and illness, it is imperative that the veterinary field devotes all available resources to creating and validating the best possible techniques. These findings will benefit our canine companions and will likely lead to improved care for human patients as well.  

Learn More about Canine Rehabilitation

Dr. Janet Van Dyke is a practicing orthopedics and sports medicine veterinarian. In 2002, she founded the Canine Rehabilitation Institute to train and certify veterinarians, physical therapists, veterinary technicians, and physical therapist assistants in canine rehabilitation. Dr. Van Dyke lectures internationally and consults regularly with veterinary and physical therapy boards on legislative issues related to veterinary rehabilitation.

 

 

 
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