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Rehabilitation for Orthopedic Injuries in Dogs

By JoAnna Pendergrass, DVM
published: May 27, 2019 - updated: June 7, 2023 • 3 min. read
rehab for dogs

Key Takeaways

  • Physical rehab can help reduce pain, strengthen muscles, and aid recovery in dogs.
  • Torn cranial cruciate ligaments are common orthopedic injuries in dogs.
  • Medication, restricted activity, and range of motion exercises can help dogs during rehab.
  • Cold and heat therapy may help during the rehab process.
  • Veterinary physical therapists can offer assistance with an injured dog’s healing and recovery.

Like people, dogs can suffer from a wide range of orthopedic injuries. Physical rehabilitation is necessary to help repair these injuries and restore normal function to the affected limb. Proper rehabilitation reduces pain, strengthens muscles, and enables a smooth recovery back to everyday activities.

Interestingly, canine physical rehabilitation is a relatively recent development, beginning when human physical therapists transferred their knowledge to veterinary medicine and developed physical therapy techniques for animals.

Among canine orthopedic injuries, the most common is a torn cranial cruciate ligament (CCL). This ligament, which is the equivalent to the human anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), connects the femur (thigh bone) to the tibia (long bone below the knee) and helps stabilize the knee joint. The CCL can tear due to trauma or prolonged normal wear and tear, causing instability in the knee and eventual arthritis if left untreated.

A torn CCL requires surgical repair. Other common canine orthopedic injuries, such as hip dysplasia and patellar luxation (dislocated kneecap), often need surgical treatment as well.

If your dog has an orthopedic injury, promptly take him to your veterinarian for diagnosis and treatment. After performing thorough physical and orthopedic exams (and possibly a neurologic exam), your veterinarian will develop a treatment plan that may involve a combination of surgery and postoperative rehabilitation.

Dogs recover from orthopedic injuries at different rates, due to such factors as age and injury severity. Therefore, this article describes rehabilitation techniques in general terms. If your dog has an orthopedic injury, your veterinarian and veterinary physical therapist (if you are referred to one) will develop an individualized rehabilitation plan that best suits your dog.

Rehabilitation Techniques for Dogs

Pain medication

Pain relief is crucial to the healing process after an orthopedic injury. Commonly used pain medications are nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as meloxicam and carprofen. Pain medication can be used with physical rehabilitation.

Restricted physical activity

Generally, after surgical repair of orthopedic injuries, dogs should strictly rest for at least the first 2 weeks—no running, jumping, or climbing the stairs. The only physical activity should be 5- to 10-minute leash walks, 2 to 4 times a day, to go to the bathroom.

In the following weeks, the duration and distance of the leash walks can increase gradually, but only by as much as a dog can tolerate. Supervised, off-leash activity (without other dogs) will likely not be allowed until several months after surgery.

Range of motion exercises

Range of motion (ROM) exercises help restore normal joint movement and flexibility and prevent scar tissue formation. These exercises, which can be performed at home several times a day after surgery, involve slowly and gently moving the affected joint through its normal range of motion. Your veterinarian can show you the proper technique for performing these exercises and advise you on when you can begin doing them at home.

Massage therapy

Yes, dogs benefit from massages, too! Massages improve circulation, reduce pain, and facilitate healing. As with ROM exercises, your veterinarian can teach you how to give your dog a massage after the surgery. Be mindful that your dog may still be in pain; be gentle and keep watch for body language (e.g., tense muscles, growling) that indicates discomfort. Discontinue the massage if your dog is uncomfortable.

Cold therapy

Cold therapy, also known as cryotherapy, reduces pain and inflammation in the immediate postoperative period (first 3 to 4 days after surgery). It is also useful after physical rehabilitation activities. Commercial ice packs or plastic bags filled with ice can be wrapped in a towel and applied to the skin for about 15 to 20 minutes, up to 4 times daily.

Heat therapy

Heat therapy should begin after the immediate postoperative period. You can purchase hot packs or make your own by filling a clean sock with rice, knotting the sock closed, and warming the sock in the microwave. Test the hot pack on your skin to make sure it’s not too hot. Wrap the hot pack with a towel before applying it to your dog and leave it on the skin for no more than about 15 minutes.

Professional services

Veterinary physical therapists have a wide range of other rehabilitation exercises available to help dogs recover from their injuries. If your veterinarian refers you to a veterinary physical therapist, your dog may engage in such activities as assisted standing or walking, walking on an underwater treadmill, and balancing on an exercise ball.

Rehabilitation is vital to the healing process for orthopedic injuries in dogs. To treat your dog’s orthopedic injury, your veterinarian will prescribe pain medication and at-home rehabilitation exercises and, if needed, refer you to a veterinary physical therapist for more advanced rehabilitation. Follow your veterinarian’s instructions carefully to ensure your dog makes a smooth and full recovery.

The content is not intended to be a substitute for professional veterinarian advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your veterinarian or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical diagnosis, condition, or treatment options.

If you love your pets like family, you want to protect them like family. By enrolling in pet insurance, you can save up to 90% on vet bills which means saying “yes” to life-saving treatments and the rehabilitation. If you’re not a part of our pack, start by getting a free quote.

joanna pendergrass
By JoAnna Pendergrass, DVM

JoAnna Pendergrass, DVM, is a veterinarian and freelance medical writer in Atlanta, GA. After graduating from the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine with her veterinary degree, JoAnna completed a 2-year research fellowship in neuroscience at Emory University. During this fellowship, she learned that she could make a career out of combining her loves of science and writing. As a medical writer, JoAnna is passionate about providing pet parents at Healthy Paws with clear, concise, and engaging information about pet care. Through her writing, she strives not only to educate pet parents, but also empower them to make good health decisions for their pets. JoAnna is a member of the American Medical Writers Association.

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