Pet Factsheets

Physical therapy and rehabilitation

©VetFolio LLC and Vetstream Ltd. Created and peer-reviewed by VetFolio LLC and Vetstream Ltd.

Physical therapy and rehabilitation involve the use of therapeutic exercises to help pets recover from acute and chronic health conditions resulting from illness, trauma, or surgery. Physical therapy can reduce pain and improve joint range-of-motion.

What is physical therapy and rehabilitation?

Physical rehabilitation is the use of therapeutic exercises and range-of-motion therapy combined with additional treatments (see list below) to improve the recovery of pets with acute or chronic health conditions. Physical therapy may be recommended for pets recovering from fractures, surgery, and neurologic events (such as spinal injury). It can help keep geriatric pets more comfortable and provide a last-chance option for pets when other treatments have been unsuccessful.

What are the benefits of physical therapy?

The benefits of physical therapy may include:

  • Decreased pain
  • Improved strength
  • Improved functioning of weak limbs
  • Healing of injured or inflamed tissues
  • Restoration of joint range-of-motion
  • Prevention of muscle wasting

Pets of all ages, sizes, and breeds can benefit from physical rehabilitation. It can help improve the quality of life for many animals suffering from chronic pain, osteoarthritis, obesity, or muscle weakness.

What does physical therapy involve?

Many types of physical therapy are used in pets. Some of the more common therapies are:

  • Hydrotherapy: hydrotherapy is the use of water to aid in the healing and/or conditioning of a patient. Pets either swim in a pool or tank for prescribed periods of time or walk on an underwater treadmill. The water level above the treadmill is high enough to provide buoyancy but low enough so that the pet's head and shoulders are above water. Swimming or walking underwater builds muscle strength and improves coordination, cardiovascular health, and endurance but without the same degree of stress or pressure on joints that would be encountered while walking on the ground. Swimming and underwater treadmills makes use of the natural resistance of water and the benefit of buoyancy to experience gentle, low-impact exercise. The therapist can control water depth, treadmill speed, and ramp incline to increase or reduce the level of exercise. Hydrotherapy can help pets make the transition to land-based therapy more quickly.
  • Cold and heat therapy: this involves the application of cold and heat to help damaged areas heal more rapidly, reduce swelling, and provide local pain relief.
  • Therapeutic ultrasound: this produces heat deep within tissues and is useful in treating joint and soft tissue injuries and chronic conditions.
  • Electrical stimulation therapy: small electrical currents can be used to help prevent muscle wasting in very weak patients by encouraging the muscles to contract. This therapy can also be used to help manage pain and to increase circulation and promote healing.
  • Massage therapy and supervised exercise: therapists may also use massage therapy, passive range-of-motion exercises, stretching, and physical therapy tools, such as balls, ramps, boards, poles, and wedges, to help rehabilitate your pet.
  • Home care:  passive range-of-motion exercises, simple massage therapy, and activity goals can all be carried out at home to support the success of therapy. Your physical therapist can develop a home treatment plan for you and your pet.

Follow your vet's recommendations for which physical therapy will be best for your pet.