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Ailing pets can benefit from physical therapy, just as owners do

In this March 18, 2013 photo provided by Colorado State University,Zack, a golden retriever, uses an underwater treadmill for a gait study at the Small Animal Orthopaedics at the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, in Fort Collins, Colo. PT for pets is one of the fastest growing areas of veterinary medicine. (AP Photo/Colorado State University, Joe A. Mendoza)

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In this March 18, 2013 photo provided by Colorado State University,Zack, a golden retriever, uses an underwater treadmill for a gait study at the Small Animal Orthopaedics at the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, in Fort Collins, Colo. PT for pets is one of the fastest growing areas of veterinary medicine. (AP Photo/Colorado State University, Joe A. Mendoza)

When Ronna Kelly's dog, Cici, made little progress following knee surgery, Kelly decided the athletic Australian shepherd mix should try treatment usually reserved for humans: physical therapy.

So for the next several months, Cici underwent a personalized exercise program — including running on an underwater treadmill — up to twice weekly at about $60 a pop. "At first she was confused," says Kelly, of Piedmont, Calif. "But after a few times she learned the routine."

A year later — and after a rigorous treatment program that included home exercise, vitamins and painkillers — Cici is back in action. "She's running like crazy after squirrels at the local dog park, and jumping up and down steep hills with amazing agility. She looks like a deer sometimes," Kelly says.

Physical therapy for pets is one of the fastest growing areas of veterinary medicine, aimed at helping achy, injured or post-operative animals feel better.

"In the past, we didn't know what to do with them and put them in a crate for six weeks," says Kirk Peck, a physical therapy professor at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb., and president of the American Physical Therapy Association's animal rehabilitation group.

Now, he says, the veterinary community knows better: "The faster you mobilize them, the faster their recovery is."

Animal care experts say physical therapy for animals is based on the same tenets as it is for people, and is frequently executed by the same practitioners.

Treatment options include therapeutic exercise programs (many of which feature underwater treadmills, at least for dogs) to strengthen muscles; manual therapy to mobilize tight muscles and joints; cold laser therapy, and sports conditioning. Rehab also could include stretching and using some standard equipment, such as balance boards, clinicians say.

There are outpatient and inpatient programs, depending on the pet and its condition.

While dogs make up the bulk of animal physical therapy patients, cats and horses are also prime candidates. The animal rehabilitation program at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colo., had a pig as a patient.

Although animal rehab has been around in practice for a couple of decades, it has become a more standard component of pet health care only in the last five years or so, experts say.

Part of the reason is that more veterinarians now recognize the benefits of rehab, which not only helps post-op patients but could also prevent some pets from having to undergo surgery at all, doctors say.

"People have recognized through research that, in the same way we do with people, we can accelerate pets' recovery after surgery, or even without surgery improve their quality of life," says Colorado State veterinarian Felix Duerr, who specializes in sports medicine. "Instead of just giving pain medication, we try to improve the outcome of the cases."

Animal rehab also has benefited from a boost in credibility. Today, practitioners (many of whom are traditional physical therapists — i.e., they work with humans) can get certified through programs such as the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga and the Canine Rehabilitation Institute, which partners with Colorado State.

The popularity of animal rehab also reflects the devotion of pet owners, who time and again have proven their willingness to invest in pets' health as options in veterinary care grow.

"People really look at their pets as part of the family," says Sasha Foster, a physical therapist who runs the Colorado State rehab program with Duerr. "What we get to do now is improve the quality of life for a family member, which improves the quality of life of everybody."

Peck says a pet's poor health can have detrimental effects on its owners' health too, since many pet owners, particularly older ones, frequently give up exercising if their dog can't join them. "Often, a goal for an owner is just to be able to walk his dog," Peck says.

Of course, there are key differences between treating animals and treating humans — and it's more than just anatomy. Therapists say they need to build trusting relationships differently with four-legged clients, and be creative when it comes to getting an animal to comply.

"They need to have a good time," Foster says.

The payoffs are big, Peck adds. "You see the response," he says. "A dog doesn't sit there and say, 'My knee feels so much better, now I can jump.' They just do it."

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