Physical Therapy Goes to the Dogs at Virginia Tech

Sep 24, 2013

Many people undergo rehabilitation for several weeks or even months following a knee or hip replacement.  That type of therapy has now crossed over into the canine world. 

Flori Sforza dons a wet suit and leads Maya into a narrow underwater treadmill, which looks like a rectangular bathtub made of transparent glass. 

Maya, an eight-year-old Doberman, stands quietly as the container fills with about two feet of warm water.  Sforza, a Certified Canine Rehabilitation Practitioner, guides the dog while her owner, Angie Mills from Vinton, starts the treadmill and Maya slowly starts walking.  It’s part of her treatment in the rehab area following surgery at the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine in Blacksburg. 

“She’s come a long way since she first started rehab.  She looks great.  I’m very happy with her progress.  She’s just been doing very well.  As long as she has peanut butter, she’s happy.”

Mills holds a red rubber Kong toy filled with peanut butter to keep Maya focused on her task.

They’ve been coming here since June.  Combined with acupuncture and exercises done at home, she’ll probably have several more weekly sessions to strengthen one of her back feet. 

Other types of therapy are done in another room of the new building.  Flori Sforza.

“We use it for most of the ground work that we do on the dogs, balancing exercises, getting on the yoga ball, doing the balance board.  We have a dry treadmill that we use in here.  And we do a lot of the other modalities like laser therapy.”

Ultrasound therapy and shockwave therapy are also used on some patients.  Theresa Pancotto  is a neurologist for the Veterinary School and refers her patients for rehab.

“The two services that we see most cases come from the neurology service for dogs that have had either back surgery or neck surgery from a disc herniation or a fracture.  And then lots of cases from the orthopedic service as well that have had their knees repaired, their elbows repaired or a long bone fracture.”

Other candidates are obese or have arthritis. 

“As a neurologist, the dog that we see most often is the dachshund for disc herniation.  The Orthopedic Department probably sees a lot of Labradors, Golden Retrievers, Pit bulls, any of those larger active-breed dogs. 

Pancotto says one of her favorite rehab stories is of a stray dog that had been hit by a vehicle and had multiple broken bones. 

“Most people would have looked at the dog and said, ‘She would never walk again’ and would have euthanized her.  And her recovery, even from a neurologist’s perspective is pretty miraculous.  I think she has some abnormalities in her gait now but going from completely paralyzed with a lot of broken bones to being a fully function pet that can run around, jump, and play and be normal was pretty phenomenal.”

Sforza started therapy treatment on the medium sized black dog while she was in the hospital.

“I was doing a lot underwater treadmill treatment with her.  I was doing a lot of massage, balancing work with the balls trying to come up with things that they could do at home, some hill walking, just anything that could get her stronger back there.”

The quickest rehabilitation Sforza has ever seen was on a Dachshund that had back surgery.  They used a combination of treatments including the underwater treadmill.

“And by the third treatment, I believe, we got her in the water and she hadn’t been walking before this.  And we had gotten her in the water and we did some regular treadmill work and then we did about maybe two minutes of swimming after that; drained the water and the dog walked out of the treadmill.”

Pancotto says while we might be familiar with a human undergoing rehab after surgery or an injury, it’s a bit different with dogs.

“The biomechanics for a lot of things between dogs and people are so different that I think it’s hard to make a straight forward transition, at least from dogs to people.  I think the converse is probably more important because rehab or physical therapy is standard of care in people before surgery, after surgery, in lieu of surgery.  And it is yet to become standard of care in veterinary medicine which the field is certainly growing in that direction but by no means is it taken on in every patient that has surgery goes to rehab which is really what should happen.”

Sforza agrees it’s a growing field of veterinary care.

“Clients are willing to put a lot of money into their dogs.  And dogs are living longer because of other modern medicine that we have available.  I’ve got two geriatric patients, 16 and 12 right now that the owners are wanting to help them out and make them more comfortable for the remainder of their life.” 

The staff members also fit dogs with carts and provide orthotics for dogs including Maya, who will need one to keep her back toes from curling under as she ages.

Three rehabilitators provide services for up to four dogs a day.  They’d like to help more patients but that would take more staff, another treadmill, and more space.  Most of the clients are already patients from within the teaching hospital but some are outside referrals.  Sforza says as the rehab center grows, they’ll be able to accept more patients from the outside.  They also hope one day to expand treatment to include horses.

The treadmill stops.  They engage in a game with the water hose as Sforza rinses Maya off.  The treadmill door opens and the therapy session is over.