How to Choose A Rehabilitation Therapy Center for Your Pet

by Lisa Stahr

Physical rehabilitation therapy is a new branch of veterinary medicine—but one that’s growing very quickly. So while there may only be one or two rehab centers in your area right now, you can bet there’ll be more in the future.  How, then, do you choose the right rehab center for you and your pet?

As with any health care decision, you must think seriously about a number of factors when choosing a rehab center for your pet, including the quality of care you expect your pet to receive, the variety of services and modalities being offered, and the training and expertise of the health care professionals who will provide that care.

Quality of Care

Many animal owners today expect the same level of health care for their pets as they do for themselves.  That means they want access to the latest research and technologies, state-of-the-art equipment and modalities, highly trained health care professionals, and significant support and education.

From your first call to a rehab center, you should get an idea of the level of care provided there.  Does the person answering the phone take time to ask about your pet’s condition?  Is she willing to answer your questions about rehab in general and that clinic in particular?  Does she explain how the facility operates?  Have they treated other animals with your pet’s condition?
You’ll also want to find out if a veterinarian at the rehab center will perform an initial examination on your pet before beginning therapy.  In many states, veterinarians are required by law to do an initial examination on every animal they see, even for rehab.  And while your pet has probably seen many veterinarians by this point, it’s important that the rehab center’s veterinarian perform an exam as well, not only to help determine an appropriate treatment plan for your pet, but also to avoid injuring (or reinjuring) him during therapy.

A rehab exam should differ significantly from the examination your regular veterinarian performed to diagnose your pet’s condition.  At Scout’s House, for example, we work from your veterinarian’s diagnosis and use our initial exam to determine your pet’s rehabilitation potential.  Our exam may include a spinal mobility assessment, a neurological assessment, measurements of joint range of motion to see how well your pet’s joints move, and measurements of muscle mass to determine if muscle atrophy has occurred.  We may also videotape your pet walking to later analyze her gait, and we talk with you about your goals for your pet.  Altogether, this information helps us to create a personalized treatment plan for your dog or cat in which we outline the recommended treatment techniques and modalities and frequency of visits.

Variety of Modalities

At some rehab centers, hydrotherapy—often performed in an underwater treadmill specially designed for dogs—is the only modality offered.  A critical tool in any rehabilitation program, hydrotherapy allows animals to exercise safely in a low-impact and highly supportive environment. Yet for many pets, hydrotherapy alone can’t effectively address all of their rehabilitative needs.   “We don’t go to the gym and use only one piece of equipment and rehabbing pets shouldn’t either,” explains Scout’s House’s Director of Rehab Therapy Krista Niebaum, MPT, CCRT. “Exercise in the hydrotreadmill alone cannot strengthen every muscle in a four-legged animal.”

If you want your pet to receive the highest level of care, you’ll need to find a rehab center that offers a variety of modalities and treatment techniques and a staff that’s qualified to implement them.  At Scout’s House, in addition to hydrotherapy, we offer neuromuscular electrical stimulation, pulsed electromagnetic field therapy, low-level laser therapy, acupuncture, veterinary orthopedic manipulation, therapeutic exercise, manual therapy, massage therapy, and heat and cold therapy.  And we’re adding more options regularly.

“Having a variety of modalities and treatment techniques to offer our patients allows us to truly individualize our treatments based on each pet’s therapeutic needs,” says Krista. “For example, dogs that have weakness due to a neurological injury may benefit from electrical stimulation of key muscles to help maintain their strength and ‘jump start’ their recovery.  For pets with significant arthritis, it may be difficult for them to exercise due to pain; a series of treatments with the pulsed electromagnetic field unit may provide some relief, as well as improve the status of their joint surfaces.”

Provider Training

A variety of modalities and techniques are the signs of a comprehensive rehab center, but having a staff that’s trained to implement them is equally critical.  Currently, California is determining the regulations for veterinary rehabilitation therapy, which means that right now almost anyone can provide rehabilitative care.  To protect your pet, look for a rehab center that has a licensed veterinarian on site so that a medical emergency can be dealt with immediately.  But be aware that even if there is a veterinarian on site, that person may not be directly involved with the rehabilitation program, leaving that responsibility instead to a licensed Physical Therapist (PT) or Registered Veterinary Technician (RVT).

The difference between a PT and an RVT is one of education and training.   A PT, although licensed to treat only humans in some states, must complete at least six years of higher education, receiving a Master’s degree or higher from an accredited college or university, before taking the State Boards to become licensed to practice physical therapy.  An RVT must take classes or complete a two-year program at an accredited community college and pass the State Boards to become licensed.

Dr. Jan Lowery, Supervising Veterinarian at Scout’s House, believes PTs bring a unique—and critical—skill set to the rehab therapy equation. “Physical therapists and veterinarians are trained to think differently,” she explains. “As veterinarians, we’re trained to recognize clinical signs and interpret data to reach a diagnosis. But PTs are trained to think in terms of movement—what facilitates it and what hinders it, what enables it and what interferes with it.”  The body of knowledge Physical Therapists bring to this discipline is invaluable, she adds.  “Trying to run a rehab center without a Physical Therapist is like trying to run a veterinary hospital without a veterinarian.”

Most of the training a Physical Therapist receives is applicable to four-legged patients.  Not only do PTs study such critical areas as kinesiology, orthopedic rehabilitation, neurological rehabilitation, wound management, and geriatric rehab, but they also learn how to correctly use all of the physical therapy modalities, such as e-stim and hydrotherapy, and manual therapy techniques, including joint mobilizations, proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation, and neurodevelopmental technique.

Whether it’s a veterinarian, a Physical Therapist, or a Registered Veterinary Technician overseeing the therapy program, be sure that person has been certified in canine rehabilitation by either the Canine Rehab Institute in Florida or by Northeast Seminar’s program offered at the University of Tennessee. Both programs offer comprehensive training in the art and science of canine rehabilitation therapy. You’ll know if your therapist has been certified if she lists “Certified Canine Rehabilitation Therapist” (CCRT), “Certified Canine Rehabilitation Practitioner” (CCRP), or “Certified Canine Rehabilitation Assistant” (CCRA) after her name.


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