Director of Rehab Therapy Krista Niebaum recently completed a comprehensive primer on how rehab therapy can be used to help animals with neurological impairments. Today we’re sharing a section on neuroplasticity and how rehab therapists can take advantage of it to help a pet combat neurological disease or injury.
In the past, it was widely believed that every animal—human, canine, or otherwise—was born with a “hardwired” central nervous system (brain and spinal cord). If damage occurred to any part, it was thought, there was no ability for the system to repair itself or to regain the corresponding function. Sadly, the loss would be permanent. Because of this, physical rehabilitation focused on developing compensatory techniques, either through altering the body movements used to complete a task or by using adaptive equipment.
More recently, though, research has shown that the nervous system has a capability to “relearn” and reorganize itself in response to experience and the environment—meaning, it’s somewhat “plastic.” Much like a person learning a new skill (such as a new swim stroke), the nervous system can be “taught” through specific training to again perform a function that has been affected by injury.
But “sloppy” practice can lead to “sloppy” learning. That’s why rehab therapists must consider neuroplasticity during every therapy session. By carefully assessing the animal’s status and monitoring his/her recovery at each session, the therapy team can determine the appropriate therapeutic activities to use to best challenge the healing nervous system and to encourage further functional recovery.
The Guardian’s Role
As rehab therapists, it’s also our job to give appropriate guidance to pet owners so that correct movement patterns are performed—and to ensure that compensatory movements are avoided. Because the animal patient typically spends far more time at home with the “human parent” than in the clinic with the therapy team—and because healing and learning are occurring constantly and not just while the pet’s in a therapy session—owners need sufficient training and education to maximize continuity of care and achieve therapy goals.
For the best possible outcome, the owner should be given information about the pet’s diagnosis, the expected stages of healing, as well as situations that should prompt follow up with a veterinarian and/or specialist. Owners should also be given thorough instruction on how to assist the pet throughout the day, possibly including anything from proper positioning and bowel/bladder care to how to assist the pet while walking and how to modify the home to make life easier and safer for the pet. Finally, owners should be given “homework” to perform outside of treatment sessions. Referred to as the Home Exercise Program (HEP), this typically complements what occurs during the patient’s sessions and promotes continued progress between sessions. While enabling an owner to take an active role in her/his pet’s recovery, the HEP—and the manner in which it’s implemented—can make a huge difference in the pet’s progress.
Together, neuroplasticity, rehab therapy, and a well executed Home Exercise Program can afford your pet the best possible outcome from neurological injury or disease.
COOL TIP: Ice is Nice!
A great way to help your pet feel better, ice can relieve pain and reduce swelling, especially if used immediately after an injury, and reduce soreness after overuse. It may also help speed healing of muscle tears and strained tendons. And, if used consistently, ice may keep a chronic problem from getting worse, and it may decrease the need for anti-inflammatory and pain medications (but talk to your veterinarian before making any medication changes).
DIY: A bag of frozen peas makes a great ice pack if you don’t have a gel pack handy. Or make your own“slush ice” by mixing 1 part water with 2 parts rubbing alcohol and freezing it in double-layered, zippered plastic bags. Always wrap the ice bag in a towel or pillowcase to prevent burns, and be careful not to let an area that’s bony, has decreased sensation, or is covered by a thin hair coat get too cold while icing. For best results, ice about 5-7 minutes, 2-3 times a day, allowing the area to return to body temperature between icings.
A Little Less to Love About Jolly
by Amy Reichert RVT, CCRA-pending
When we first met Jolly, she couldn’t walk for more than ten minutes without getting sore due to pain in her tarsal, or ankle, joints. Her inability to participate in everyday activities led to a more sedentary life and with that came extra weight. Unfortunately for Jolly, the added pressure on her joints further contributed to her discomfort and decreased mobility. Her prognosis was guarded, some even said she might not live to see her third birthday. Jolly’s owners came to Scout’s House with the hope of improving her mobility and quality of life. They were determined to help her lose the weight and help her live a full and active life. With hydrotherapy, laser treatments, pulsed magnetic therapy, and a strict diet, Jolly has made huge strides in achieving these goals.
Her owners have been diligent in following the Home Exercise Program to supplement her regular rehab appointments and, as a result, Jolly has lost over 15 pounds (so far!) and her quality of life has surpassed expectations. Now, she’s able to keep up with the other dogs in the household on walks and will even chase her basketball in the backyard all afternoon, given the opportunity. She still has some work ahead of her, but she celebrated her third birthday in November and we hope to help her celebrate many more.
There’s a LOT to love about Jolly, but now there’s just a little bit less of her to love, and everyone’s just fine with that.