Understanding Physiotherapy & Rehabilitation

Physical rehabilitation is the application of physical therapy techniques to animals. Pets recovering from orthopedic and neurologic surgery benefit from physical rehabilitation. In addition, animals who suffer from the effects of osteoarthritis experience a restoration of function as well as added comfort when they are treated with physical rehabilitation. Physical rehabilitation at The Downing Center includes: heat therapy, cold therapy, balance-building, joint mobilization, massage, electrical stimulation, low-level laser therapy, strength-building, flexibility exercises, stretching, and hydrotherapy – both swimming and walking – using an underwater treadmill. An important part of physical rehabilitation is the “in between” work at home, so rehabilitation patients receive a personalized “homework” plan.

Commonly Asked Questions

What is rehabilitation medicine?

veterinary_physical_therapy-1Rehabilitation therapy involves the use of specific non-invasive treatments (massage, exercise, light, heat, cold, electricity, ultrasound, laser, magnetic therapy, hydrotherapy, etc.) to rehabilitate injured patients. The goal of rehabilitation is to return the patient to normal function as quickly as possible, and to restore the full range of movement and strength to injured body parts.

 “The underlying principle of rehabilitation therapy is that the least effective treatment for injury is excessive rest…”

The underlying principle of rehabilitation therapy is that the least effective treatment for injury is excessive rest, and that stimulation of circulation through areas recovering from injury promotes an optimal rate and degree of healing. Since, in some jurisdictions, the terms physiotherapy and physical therapy may only be applied to treatment of humans, these terms will not be used in this handout series.

What is the history of rehabilitation therapy in veterinary medicine?

Although various forms of rehabilitation have undoubtedly been used for centuries on animals, the foundation for its use as an applied science is very recent. The American Association of Equine Practitioners established a set of guidelines for the practice of rehabilitation on horses in 1993. Rehabilitation therapy as an applied science has gained wide acceptance in dogs in recent years.


On which species of animals is rehabilitation therapy practiced regularly?

Rehabilitation therapy has been practiced regularly on horses, especially equine athletes, for decades. As a form of treatment, it has recently gained wide acceptance in dogs, and could easily be applied to other animal species.

Who practices veterinary rehabilitation medicine and do I need a referral?

Rehabilitation therapy for animals may be performed by veterinarians, or under specific circumstances may be performed by veterinary technicians or licensed physiotherapists.

Academic training in canine rehabilitation is available through the University of Tennessee and through the Canine Rehabilitation Institute. This training is available to veterinarians, veterinary technicians and licensed physiotherapists. A veterinarian who completes this training will either become a Certified Canine Rehabilitation Practitioner (CCRP) or a Certified Canine Rehabilitation Therapist (CCRT), depending on the designation from the institution from which they received their training. A veterinary technician who has completed the training will receive the title Certified Canine Rehabilitation Assistant (CCRA). A licensed physiotherapist who becomes certified will receive the title Certified Canine Rehabilitation Therapist (CCRT).

Veterinary technicians and physiotherapists who are licensed to practice on people can only treat animals under the direct supervision of a veterinarian, following a veterinary diagnosis and in accordance with state or provincial veterinary regulations.

“If a veterinarian is performing or prescribing rehabilitation treatments,

referral may or may not be necessary.”

If a veterinarian is performing the treatments, referral may or may not be necessary. If a non-veterinarian will be the therapist, the patient must be referred by a veterinarian, who will then assume responsibility for assessing and coordinating the patient’s care. In some jurisdictions, as graduates of the canine rehabilitation program become available, it may become acceptable for a CCRP-trained rehabilitation therapist to treat dogs without a specific referral. Your regular veterinarian will be able to advise you on the regulations in your area.

What conditions are most often treated with rehabilitation therapy?

Both acute and chronic injuries are amenable to treatment. Electrical stimulation has been shown to relieve pain, to minimize muscle atrophy (degeneration) secondary to disuse caused by pain or immobilization, to treat laminitis (a condition of the horse’s hoof), to reduce tissue swelling, and to speed healing of both open and closed wounds. Iontophoresis, which uses electricity to push therapeutic ionic substances into injured tissue, has shown promise in the treatment of various inflammatory conditions of the musculoskeletal system. Therapeutic ultrasound can be used to stimulate tissue repair and minimize the formation of scar tissue and adhesions. Therapeutic laser treatment is showing great promise, especially in the treatment of chronic problems. External application of ice and compression wraps is effective not only as a first aid treatment but also to break the pain-muscle spasm-pain cycle common to many musculoskeletal injuries.

How can my pet benefit from rehabilitation therapy?

“The appropriate application of rehabilitation therapy will speed healing,

relieve pain, and improve the patient’s likelihood of a full recovery .”

The appropriate application of rehabilitation therapy will speed healing, relieve pain, and improve the patient’s likelihood of a full recovery.

How successful is rehabilitation therapy?veterinary_physical_therapy-3

As a technique to reduce pain and speed healing, the various forms of rehabilitation can be very effective.

How safe is rehabilitation therapy?

Rehabilitation therapy is usually safe in the hands of trained individuals. However, rehabilitation therapy has the potential for doing significant harm to a patient if performed by an individual with inappropriate education and training.

What is the cost of rehabilitation therapy?

Comprehensive rehabilitation therapy requires an initial veterinary assessment and formulation of a treatment plan, which usually consists of a series of treatments. The cost of treatment will reflect both the equipment being used and the skill and experience of the practitioner and therapist. The actual fees are set by the individual practitioner.

Can rehabilitation therapy be combined with traditional veterinary medicine?

Rehabilitation is most appropriately used in combination with either traditional or alternative forms of veterinary medicine. A licensed veterinarian should formulate the overall treatment plan, following the appropriate diagnostic examination and assessment of the patient. Follow-up evaluations are necessary to determine the individual’s response to treatment and adjust the therapy accordingly. In the majority of jurisdictions, if your animal companion is receiving rehabilitation therapy from an individual other than your regular veterinarian, that person must report directly to your veterinarian in order to provide coordinated care of your companion, to allow proper evaluation of treatment and to minimize any avoidable interactions or interferences.

Steve Marsden, DVM ND MSOM LAc DiplCH AHG, Shawn Messonnier, DVM and Cheryl Yuill, DVM, MSc, CVH.
Location Hours
Monday8:00am – 6:00pm
Tuesday8:00am – 4:00pm
Wednesday8:00pm – 8:00pm
Thursday8:00am – 4:00pm
Friday8:00am – 6:00pm