Arthritic Dogs Benefit from At-Home Physical Therapy

These simple at-home physical therapy exercises, when done under the guidance of a veterinarian well-versed in canine rehab, can help your arthritic dog move more easily and comfortably.

If your dog is suffering from arthritis, or just doesn’t seem as spry as he once was, at-home physical therapy exercises can be a nice addition to his care. The goals of at-home physical therapy are to improve flexibility, movement, muscle mass, body awareness, and, as a bonus, your relationship with your dog.

Before You Begin

Before starting any home exercise program with your dog, it’s important for him to have a full physical with his veterinarian.

Pointer: After he gets the all-clear, set up an evaluation with a veterinarian who specializes in canine rehabilitation.

This evaluation will be very different from the one he receives from his primary doctor. Veterinarians who specialize in canine rehabilitation will assess your dog. “A thorough rehabilitation examination should include aspects that a regular ‘physical’ doesn’t, including gait analysis, goniometry (measurements of joint range of motion), and Gulick measurements (circumferential evaluation of muscle mass),” says veterinarian Dr. Jennifer Coates. This will be your dog’s starting point and, throughout his physical therapy, the rehab vet will continue to take his measurements to check on his progress and make any needed adjustments to his at-home exercises.

Take It Slowly

The next step is to slowly introduce your dog to one or two of his recommended at-home exercises. It’s important to only do a few repetitions of an exercise, take a break, and maybe try another set later in the day.

Pointer: Never force your dog to do something if he seems stressed or in pain.

When possible, video record your sessions and show the veterinarian for tips and guidance.

4 At-Home Canine Rehabilitation Exercises

1. Canine massage is a great way to start your dog’s exercises. You don’t have to be a certified therapist to provide him with a valuable massage. Ask your dog to lie down, preferably on her side. Start at the top of her head and gently stroke her forehead. As you do so, gently add light pressure and turn your strokes into more circular motions. Move your hands around his forehead, base of the neck, ears, etc. Continue over his entire body.

“Giving your dog a gentle massage, especially before exercise, aids in improving circulation and is calming and enjoyable for her,” says veterinarian Dr. Jamie Whittenburg. “Both the painful joints and the muscles can be gently massaged with your hand. Any indication that the massage is causing pain or discomfort to the dog is a sign to stop.”

2. Taking your dog for walks and allowing him to sniff his world is one of the best things you can do for both his mental and physical health. Ensure that his harness allows him full range of motion of his front and back legs, and does not put any pressure on his neck or spine.

“Walking is one of my favorite exercises to recommend for arthritic dogs,” says Dr. Whittenburg. “The important thing to remember is that you need to control the concussive force on the joints. Walking is a low-impact activity, but I suggest keeping arthritic dogs on soft surfaces, such as grass. If sand is available, that is even better as it is soft on the joints but provides a great muscle-building workout. Dogs should never be forced to walk farther or longer than they are comfortable.”

Pointer: “Stopping to sniff things is good for both strengthening and improving flexibility of the neck and back.”

3. Cavalettis are another easy exercise you can do with your arthritic dog. It involves poles, such as broomsticks, placed on the ground for your dog to walk over. This exercise is a great way to work on your dog’s proprioception (body awareness), range of motion, coordination, and flexibility.

Simply place poles in a row. The distance will depend on your dog’s natural gait. With a treat, or verbal encouragement, ask your dog to walk over the poles. In the beginning, she is likely to knock the poles with her foot. She is learning where her feet are in space. As she gets the hang of it, she should start lifting up her feet.

Pointer: You are only looking for a slight height, not a jump!

You can change the Cavaletti challenge by placing the poles on towels or crushed cans to enhance their height. It is incredibly important to ensure that if your dog hits a pole with her foot, the pole moves off and is not stationary.

4. Pivoting is a great hind-end awareness exercise in which your dog puts his front two paws on an object, often called a perch, as his back feet move him and rotate around the object. This conditioning exercise helps build strength and muscle tone. “Having strong muscles is essential to easing the pain of arthritis,” explains Dr. Whittenburg. “Dogs can increase their muscle tone without further damaging their joints with this simple exercise.”

  • First, place a flat object, such as a book, inside a cotton or flannel pillowcase. Fold the pillowcase around the book and place it on the floor. Teach your dog “two paws up”, by having the book between you and your dog. With a treat to his nose, lure him up and onto the book with his front feet. Reward and praise. Once he’s mastered this new trick, it’s time to teach a pivot.
  • With the book between you and your dog, ask him for his “two paws up” behavior. Reward this step. Move a few inches to the right of the book, closer to your dog. Look for your dog to move his feet to his right, and reward him when he makes any attempt.

Pointer: The reason your dog will want to move to his right is to see you better and move away from your body.

Continue this process, rewarding any slight attempts to move his feet. If he gets off the book, simply lure him back up and reward him. Do a few repetitions then take steps to your left.

  • As your dog begins to master this behavior, you can change up the difficulty level by having a slightly higher perch, or one that has some instability such as a pillow or balance disc.

Done under the guidance of a veterinarian who specializes in rehab for dogs, these at-home physical therapy exercises are a great way to improve your arthritic canine companion’s strength and mobility. They are also a wonderful way to enrich his life during his twilight years.

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