Physical Rehabilitation

Updated: 2/20/23


The goal of physical rehabilitation in animals is to manage and treat injuries or conditions that limit mobility, cause pain, or negatively impact an animal’s quality of life. Known as physical therapy in human medicine, rehabilitation provides the following benefits: pain relief, improved circulation, strengthened muscles, healthy weight loss, and faster healing after an injury.

Veterinarians certified in rehabilitation develop customized treatment plans depending on the animal and condition. A treatment plan may include a variety of different therapies designed to improve mobility, increase strength, or decrease pain. Patients who are postoperative, arthritic, geriatric, obese, or have a neurological condition may all benefit from rehabilitation.


Rehabilitation focuses primarily on treating neurologic or musculoskeletal disorders. Common conditions treated with rehabilitation include:

Cranial Cruciate Ligament Disease (CCL rupture) – the cranial cruciate ligament (CCL) in dogs is the equivalent of the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in humans. When the CCL ruptures, the knee joint destabilizes, twists, and slips.

Elbow Dysplasia – a skeletal disorder that causes lameness due to the abnormal development of the elbow joint.

Fracture/Traumatic Injuries

Hip Dysplasia – a skeletal disorder that results in the instability or looseness of a dog’s hip joint. The ball and socket of the joint do not fit together properly – instead of rolling and sliding, they rub and grind.

Intervertebral Disc Disease (IVDD) – this condition occurs when one of the intervertebral discs, which cushion the bones of the spinal cord, either bulge or burst from the spine. Commonly referred to as a herniated disc or a slipped disc, it can cause a wobbly walk, back or neck pain, nerve damage, and even hind limb paralysis.

Loss of limb/Post Amputation

Obesity – pets who are overweight or obese are at risk of developing serious diseases, such as arthritis, diabetes, high blood pressure, kidney disease, and cancer. Rehabilitation can aid in healthy and safe weight loss while building strength and burning calories.

Osteoarthritis – arthritis refers to the inflammation of one or more joints. In pets with osteoarthritis, the cartilage lining at the end of the bone deteriorates and the surrounding joint fluid thins, causing inflammation, pain, and stiffness where the bones rub together.

Patellar Luxation – a condition in which the patella, or kneecap, dislocates from its typical position in the groove of the thigh bone.


Black dog with acupuncture needles (Dr. Leilani Alvarez)
Acupuncture (above) – the practice of placing needles in specific points on the body to help relieve pain and improve circulation.

French bulldog with wheelchair cart
Assistive Devices and Prosthetics (above) – patients who need mobility support can benefit from the use of an assistive device, such as a leg brace or cart. Prosthetics are also available for patients with a missing limb.

king charles cavalier spaniel exercising
Exercise (above) – various exercises can be used to increase a patient’s strength, lower their weight, and improve mobility and coordination.

Dog using underwater treadmill
Hydrotherapy (above) – uses water in a controlled environment to relieve pain and provide a low-impact exercise. A common device used in hydrotherapy is the underwater treadmill, which takes pressure off the joints while simultaneously providing resistance as the animal moves through water.

Dachshund getting laser treatment
Laser Therapy (above) – uses infrared light to reduce pain and help tissues repair.

Manual Therapy – includes a variety of techniques where the veterinarian moves a limb or joint to increase mobility and relieve pain.

Massage (above) – can help increase circulation and control pain in an animal. It also promotes relaxation.

Pulsed Electromagnetic Field Therapy (PEMF) – uses magnetic fields to reduce pain, improve circulation, and improve tissue repair.

Stem cell injection into dog
Regenerative Medicine (above) – helps heal injuries by using an animal’s own stem cells or plasma, gathered from fat tissue or bone marrow, which is then injected at the site of an injury.

Shockwave Therapy – uses short and powerful sound waves to increase joint mobility and reduce pain.

Thermotherapy – the application of either heat or ice on an area of the body can promote healing. Ice or a cold compress can help reduce inflammation and pain, while a heat pack can help increase circulation and relax muscles.

Ultrasound Therapy – uses sound waves to reduce pain, increase circulation, and improve how joints function.

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Sports Medicine, Rehabilitation, and Integrative Medicine

About Sports Medicine, Rehabilitation, and Integrative Medicine The Tina Santi Flaherty Rehabilitation & Fitness Service at the Schwarzman Animal Medical Center, the only facility of its kind in New York

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