By Dr. Erica Kirsch
A common trend I have noticed in the veterinary world is using physical therapy as a last resort for canine arthritis in older dogs. Owners are being referred to physical therapy when their older dog can barely walk or stand and medications are no longer managing their pain. Often times these dogs have been on pain medications for several years for their arthritis with no other interventions provided or recommended. Unobstructed, the vicious cycle of arthritis will go on and on until the dog is severely debilitated. Unfortunately it becomes really difficult to make a difference for these dogs because their arthritis has become severe, their motion is extremely limited, and they have lost a significant amount of muscle due to disuse. The graph below demonstrates how this cycle self perpetuates and leads to increasing disability.
So how do we break this cycle? With physical therapy of course! I believe that if we can get aging dogs with arthritis into physical therapy at the first sign of declining mobility and increased pain we can break this cycle and have a much greater effect on their quality of life going forward. I would propose that a physical therapy consultation should be the FIRST line of intervention in dogs with signs of arthritis.
There are so many benefits physical therapy can offer these dogs. Human research has shown that early physical therapy intervention for arthritis results in improved pain, stiffness, range of motion, and function. Treatments may include joint mobilizations, stretching, strengthening, and modalities for pain management. If physical therapy can help these dogs improve their joint mobility and comfort early on we can stop this cycle of decline without having to do much strengthening outside of the dog’s normal activities. Skilled physical therapy intervention combined with a home program has been shown to be more effective than a home program alone. However, even investing in just a physical therapy consult can be beneficial. An extensive home exercise program can go a long way if it is tailored to the individual dog. It may also save owners money on long term medications and extensive future physical therapy.
I feel really strongly that physical therapy can make a huge difference in the lives of aging pets with arthritis, but early intervention is key!