Blog

Physical Rehabilitation and Senior Pets

Aug 17

Categories: Blog

Senior pets are not unlike senior citizens. They need more frequent physical examinations, often take multiple medications and can have "senior moments". Like their people, pets tend to lose muscle and balance as they age. With muscle and balance loss often come inactivity  and weight gain, increasing the stress on already arthritic joints which often results in injuries from tripping and/or falling.

Senior pets can benefit from a wide range of exercises designed to improve heart function, increase stamina, strengthen muscles, increase flexibility with stretching exercise and stabilize balance. Most senior pets can benefit from massage, general exercise for balance and orientation as well as specific targeted exercise for strength and standing.

Many exercises and modalities are not just for senior pets. The same exercises can be used for injured, recovering, or athletic dogs in poor weather conditions. Cats can also benefit from these exercises, too. Improving range of motion promotes healthy joints, muscles and balance. These exercises are referred to as PROM: passive range of motion and often are performed with the animal laying down and relaxed. Care is taken to extend and flex each joint in a normal range of motion (ROM) without causing further injury. An example is the cookie reach exercise which keeps older dogs flexible with the added bonus of challenging balance  and stability. And, there's a cookie reward!. The idea is that the dog must reach and extend to take the cookie in a variety of directions without necesarily stepping to get it. If a pet has balance issues, support may be needed and we recommend the Help'em up harness fo these animals.

Other therapies can be performed at Animal Health Care: these include the use of the hydrotherapy in the underwater treadmill and LASER therapy.

Hydrotherapy has long been associated as a major modalitiy in rehab. Walking in water and swimming can markedly improve mental health, muscle strength, increase stamina, aid in weight loss, and reduce joint inflammation, and decrease pain. Respiratory function improves, cardiovascular performance increases and there is generally a sense of well being after a session is completed. And, again not just for seniors but also for post orthopedic surgical patients, working or athletic dogs, pre- and post whelping (giving birth) and for good brain function. No pain only gain: and we don't mean weight because with better muscle function comes weight reduction!

LASER for therapy use can help pets in a number of ways. Energy level is increased, improved pain relief (analgesia), accelerated healing and decrease inflammation are common to most conditions treated at ahc. Generally there are 3 phases to LASER use. The initial phase, often more aggressive, is usually performed in the veterinary office 2-3 times weekly after an injury has been identified and/or after surgery. Then there is the transition phase which is 1-2 times weekly as the body is healing, followed by a maintenance phase which can be weekly, monthly or as needed to prevent further injury and control pain.  Chronic ear, skin and joint problems are examples of using a maintenance therapy plan to benefit our patients. Almost all musculoskeletal disorders are responsive to LASER therapy. Examples would include acute trauma, sprains, strains, post surgical pain management and again as an integral part of rehabilitation in the senior pet who may face multiple problems.

The following list of musculoskeletal conditions will benefit from LASER therapy:

  • cruciate ligament injury and post operative pain management
  • hip dysplasia
  • elbow dysplasia
  • disc disease and back pain
  • osteoarthritis
  • trauma/fractures
  • degenerative joint diseases
  • neurologic pain
  • loss of motor function and control
  • paralysis
  • muscle weakness
  • most chronic conditions that require return to function for quality daily activities of living

The use of LASER in many dermatologic conditions adding to the traditional standard of care treatments can have dramatic results. Most patients exhibit relief of many signs in a shorter time with decrease in tissue swelling and inflammation appearing improved after 1-2 treatments. Examples include acral lick dermatitis: a chronic poorly responsive local skin lesion which often has multifactorial causes when added to hypersensitivity in the skin, joint disease, infection plus reinforced behavioral component. Almost like a child sucking their thumb which releases endorphins from the brain which causes the pet to get relief and then continue the licking associated with the chronicity. A self fulfilling activity!

And, just like the rest of the body, the brain is affected by the aging process. Damage to brain cells can lead to changes in your pet's behavior. Half of all dogs over the age of 8 and cats over the age of 12 will show some signs of brain aging. Changes in brain function occur very slowly. You may notice that there are subtle differences in behavior which may include increased sleeping (yes, I know cats sleep 23.5 hours out of the day so how can you tell!), lack of energy or increased irritability. There can also be changes in eyesight, hearing, taste and smell so that they start to interfere with your pet's daily activities of living and affects their quality of life functions. The following signs are commonly thought to be related to brain aging:

  • failing to greet you
  • not interested in normal playing
  • wandering or pacing
  • forgetfulness especially with house training
  • seems lost
  • disoriented
  • unfamiliar with normal surroundings or routines

Of course, any change should be discussed with your pet's veterinarian as many of these signs can also have other causes that need to be eliminated  before you assign the label of dementia to your pet. There are many age stage foods that we can recommend as the food your pet eats plays an important role in their overall health and well being. Balanced nutrition is an essential part of an active, healthy lifestyle.

And, finally a word about medications used in our senior pets. Please do not administer any medications without consulting your pets vet. A baby aspirin lasts 3 days in a cat and one Tylenol will be fatal to cats. Dogs have different metabolisms than people and are medicated with very different doses of common (to us) medications especially as they age.  Arthritis is the number one problem affecting senior dogs and also cats. 1 in 5 dogs will exhibit signs of arthritis as an inflammatory condition that leads to pain and progressive degeneration of joints. Mobility becomes limited and pain interferes with daily activities. While many pets have arthritis and it is most common in older, overweight, larger dog breeds, this condition affects dogs of all sizes and ages as well as cats. A study done in cats over 12 years of age found evidence of arthritis on X-Rays taken for other reasons in these cats and yet their owners when asked said they did not cei their cats to have any signs related to pain. Many pet owners said, my pet is just slowing down and that was accepted as a natural sign of aging. And, because most pets are very stoic and hide their perceive it goes unrecognized and very under appreciated.

So, ask your pet's veterinary team about pain relief choices in your pets.  No pet should be in pain and with so many options for control from rehab to nutrition to medications and supplements your pets can earn their AARF card with pride!