Dog Physiotherapy: What you need to know

Animal rehabilitation (or animal physical therapy) began in the equine sector in the 1960’s due to the growth in popularity of horse related sporting events. As the events became more frequent so the number of injuries increased. Horse owners began to look into rehabilitation methods for their animals, which subsequently spread into other animal care, and by the 1980’s canine physical therapy was commonly used throughout Europe.

Due to advances in veterinary surgery dogs are now receiving far more complicated surgeries than in the past. Alongside this, significant nutritional and medical advancements have led to a dramatic increase in canine life expectancy. This has led to a greater interest in physiotherapy treatments as dog owners hope to maintain their pet’s quality of life for as long as possible.

Active dogRehabilitation is one of the fastest growing sectors of veterinary medicine and is proven to improve quality of life, help reduce behavioural issues relating to pain, increase performance and extend the life of your dog. It is not seen as a replacement for modern veterinary practices but as a supportive treatment to improve recovery rates, slow the process of aging and help maintain a healthy lifestyle. The treatment can be given both before and after operations as it helps to lengthen and strengthen soft tissues in order to prevent them from becoming contracted when movement is restricted; to reduce pain; improve the condition of soft tissues and improve muscle mass. Muscle is crucial in initiating movement; providing support to the joint as well as acting as a “shock absorber”.

It is important to note that in order to receive canine physiotherapy, your pet has to be referred to your veterinary physiotherapist by a vet who will discuss your dog’s options. After analysing the information provided by your vet, your dog’s medical history and making an assessment during your first physiotherapy visit, your veterinary physiotherapist will construct a strategic program to meet the needs of your pet.

Physiotherapy and its benefits

Playful dogCanine physiotherapy is an effective way of providing pain relief in a variety of physical ailments. The purpose of the therapy is to regain functional ability of limbs and joints by optimising movement and thus improving quality of life. As with humans, as dogs get older they are more likely to suffer from osteoarthritis (a form of arthritis) secondary to elbow/hip dysplasia, ligament (cruciate) and tendon injuries.

There are many conditions affecting dogs that result in weakness in the back legs, such as spinal injuries or hip dysplasia. To overcome this they tend to use their front end more to reduce the movement in their back end. Dogs can be very clever at hiding their discomfort and as a result, their shoulders and front legs can become sore and arthritic if the issues are not addressed.

Canine physiotherapy adapts human physical therapy techniques as a non-invasive alternative solution to providing pain relief, as well as aiding the recovery from injury. The benefits of canine physiotherapy have been widely accepted in the veterinarian community for many years, with vets changing their focus from palliative care to preventative care.


Lameness can involve one or more limbs and has a varied impact on the dog’s life. Being unable to place any weight on a limb can be a clear sign of lameness and immediately highlights the need to visit a vet for a diagnosis. Other symptoms can include:

  • a decreased range of motion
  • loss of muscle mass
  • abnormal posture when standing or sitting
  • abnormal movement when walking or running (e.g. bunny hopping with the back legs)
  • confusion or trembling can be sign of problems with the nervous system
  • bones or joints may look and feel abnormal
  • grating sounds during the movement of joints

These are also more subtle signs of lameness but it is important you are aware of any changes to your dog’s health to avoid aggravating a symptom. If a dog is in pain they may express this as aggression or seem depressed or “lazy” and should further emphasise the urgent need to visit your vet.

The main areas physiotherapy can help your dog

Happy dogPhysiotherapy treatment can help your dog if it suffers from any of the following:

  • Joint problems: arthritis (osteoarthritis and rheumatoid), stiffness in joints, elbow and hip dysplasia, luxating patella
  • Spinal stiffness/soreness, intervertebral disc disease
  • Back, neck, pelvic pain
  • Age related joint stiffness, decreasing mobility
  • Muscle, tendon and ligament (cruciate) strain
  • Difficulty with functions; jumping, stairs
  • Lameness
  • Trauma, soft tissue injuries to tendon, ligament (cruciate), muscle
  • Weight or inactivity/obesity problems
  • Pain or discomfort

Osteoarthritis (Arthritis)

One of the most common types of arthritis is osteoarthritis, which is a condition that affects joints. Over time, surfaces within joints become damaged, the cartilage becomes thinner and the result is that the joint’s usual smooth movement is affected by friction. For this symptom the aim of physiotherapy will be to relieve pain, improve flexibility and increase the strength of the joint. To do this, the veterinary physiotherapist will demonstrate massage to the affected joints and show you, the owner, stretching exercises to increase movement. To avoid overworking the joints, the physiotherapist will often start with short sessions and recommend reducing any current exercise routines at home.

Hip and elbow dysplasia

Hip and elbow dysplasia is a condition whereby these joints have failed to develop normally resulting in gradual deterioration which if left untreated can lead to loss of function of the joints. This condition is often found in young dogs and early signs are usually found after four months of age. The physiotherapy approach to treating this condition will follow a similar strategy to treating osteoarthritis.

Post-Surgery rehabilitation
Comfortable dogPhysiotherapy can play a key role in rehabilitation after surgery. It is the ideal solution for dogs recovering from fractures, muscle and ligament injuries as physiotherapy will reduce pain, increase the rate of healing, improve muscle mass and help restore the dog’s movement. Different techniques are used to treat different symptoms. Massage, passive range of motion and stretching exercises can all be used during the treatment process. Massage is a soothing and relaxing technique that stimulates the release of endorphins. The massage technique can also be used to stimulate the nervous system to help wake up any nerve damage caused by neurological conditions. Synovial fluid is washed over joint surfaces to nourish the cartilage and maintain joint health during passive range of motion physiotherapy. To ensure muscles remain supple, stretching exercises are used and help with comfort and encourage movement within damaged limbs.

Neurological conditions
Spinal disc disease is one example of a neurological condition. In some instances surgery is required and in combination with physiotherapy it is possible to improve movement via gait re-education and exercise programs.

Coordination physiotherapy helps to improve your dog’s awareness of its surroundings. Exercise methods such as weaves, figure of eights and obstacles, where the exercise challenges your dog’s coordination, are ideal for rejuvenating a dog’s coordination skills. These techniques encourage the dog to focus on where its paws are being placed which helps to build coordination, and the weaves and figure of eight exercises build upon the dog’s strength. Coordination exercises benefit dogs suffering from neurological conditions and spinal cord injuries. All of these techniques should be used in conjunction with a physiotherapy programme.

Known as pulse electromagnetic field therapy (PEMF), electrotherapy treatment is another technique at a physiotherapist disposal. This technology allows the therapist to stimulate your dog’s natural healing process and aids pain relief. Other commonly used electrotherapies include: ultrasound, TENs, laser and neuromuscular stimulation.

Physiotherapy for performance dogs
Additionally, physiotherapy could benefit your dog even if they do not have any health issues. It can be particularly beneficial for performance dogs as they are at greater risk of soft tissue damage and creating areas of stiffness or tenderness. You may wish to consider physiotherapy prior to a big event which could enhance their performance on the day.

Physiotherapy at home
Elderly dogWith any kind of physiotherapy treatment, rehabilitation has to continue within the home and not just be practised during the session. A veterinary physiotherapist should discuss and devise a structured rehabilitation program and show you what daily steps you need to do with your pet at home. This is vital to the continual recovery of your dog as they need the right type and amount of exercise in order to avoid aggravating the problem. To follow a structured plan of rehabilitation you may have to make big changes to your dog’s daily routine in order to maximise the chance of full functionality returning.

As with training, structure is very important to the success of a dog’s rehabilitation. Maintaining a structured routine can help contain any potential anxiety as your dog will get familiar with the daily treatment plan, allowing them to relax more. Ensuring your dog is relaxed will increase the effectiveness of the physiotherapy treatment and should speed up the process.

What WitsEnd offer

Dr Shahad Mohammed is WitsEnd’s fully qualified veterinary physiotherapist who is a member of the National Association of Veterinary Physiotherapists (NAVP, with over 10 years of experience within the field. Shahad will observe your dog’s movement and assess their joints and muscles before planning a rehabilitation programme with you. A future re-assessment will be scheduled for 7-10 days later where Shahad will discuss progress and any other potential treatment options available. Shahad has done referral work over the last 10 years for many of the veterinary surgeons in Leicestershire and runs a clinic for the Park Veterinary Group at their Glenfield Practice on most Saturday afternoons and a clinic for Ash Tree Veterinary Practice in Market Harborough, as well as seeing clients at WitsEnd.

For more information on our physiotherapy treatment plans, please visit or call us on 0116 244 2455.

About the author

Dr Shahad Mohammed
Veterinary Physiotherapist
National Association of Veterinary Physiotherapists