Have you ever caught yourself thinking that your furry loved one looks uncomfortable in their movement or wondered if they are in pain? It could be that they require some physio. We interviewed Sofia Graham, Veterinary physiotherapist, to find out what steps should be taken if you are considering physio therapy for your dog or horse...
My name is Sofia Graham, and I qualified as a Veterinary Physiotherapist in 2012, from Canine and Equine Physiotherapy Training (CEPT). I’m a member of the Institute of Registered Animal and Veterinary Physiotherapists (IRVAP), and the Register of Animal Musculoskeletal Practitioners (RAMP). This is important because this means that I am suitably qualified, and insured appropriately, and need to do a minimum of 25 hours of further training each year, though I usually do a lot more!
Physiotherapy focuses on managing, maintaining and improving your animal’s musculoskeletal health, through a variety of therapy modalities, exercise programmes and appropriate management.
I can’t give you a diagnosis of you animal’s issue, only a vet is permitted to do that, but once you have a diagnosis, I can help manage the condition in the best way possible.
During a physiotherapy appointment, I use lots of different techniques, depending on what is appropriate in each case. Alongside more ‘traditional’ physiotherapy techniques, such as massage, mobilisations, passive and active stretching and exercise programmes, I use a lot of myofascial release techniques and acupressure. I also have a Pulsed Electromagnetic Field Therapy unit and laser/phototherapy unit with blue/red/infrared heads to use for a variety of conditions.
I have always wanted to work with animals, and feel very lucky to do what I do. I have also previously worked as a Canine Carer for Dogs Trust, and spent nearly three years working as a Canine Hydrotherapist, too.
Working with animals is all I’ve ever wanted to do! I wanted something hands-on, with a bit of variety, but wasn’t quite sure what. When I had nearly finished my undergraduate Animal Science degree, my course leader mentioned animal physiotherapy, which I’d never heard of before. It fit the bill perfectly and I’ve never looked back. Every day is different, and there’s something new to learn from each client.
That’s a difficult question, as there are so many answers!
There are the more ‘obvious’ times when they may benefit – for example if they are having surgery, physiotherapy can help both pre and post-op. Therapy can also be a conservative option instead of surgery for certain dogs, such as elderly ones, or those who have a condition that means they may not cope well with an anaesthetic.
For both horses and dogs - one of the most important indicators can be a ‘change in behaviour’. This can mean many things, and may be very subtle, but if they suddenly seem grumpier than usual or more reluctant to exercise, getting them checked over is a good idea.
Stiffness is a very common indicator that physiotherapy may be useful, but I should also mention that if your horse or dog goes lame, they MUST see the vet for a diagnosis before they can be seen by any musculoskeletal therapist.
For horses it can be ‘big’ things like bucking or rearing when ridden, or more subtle things, like they might struggle to bend slightly more on one rein, they may lean on the contact on one side, they may be resistant in the contact, they might stick their tongue out while they’re being ridden… lots of things in varying degrees!
During the first session with a new client, a detailed history will be taken. This will be followed by an in-hand gait assessment. If necessary, the horse may need to be shown on the lunge and/or ridden too. The horse will then be palpated all over, and I’ll talk you through what I can feel. Based on a combination of the assessment, previous medical history and your aims, we’ll proceed with appropriate treatment.
I use of lot of different techniques, so each treatment will vary a bit, depending on what is suitable in each case.
An appointment begins with a discussion of the current issue that the client wants to address, previous medical history of the dog, and the outcomes the owner would like from the session. This part also gives me an opportunity to watch the dog and get to know them a little bit while we’re chatting. They may be asked to show your dog at walk, trot and gallop, and demonstrate some simple exercises, such as ‘stand to sit’ and ‘stand to lie’. The dog’s active and passive range of motion will be assessed, and neurological/proprioceptive deficits will be checked for.
They will then be physically assessed for any muscle spasm, soreness, asymmetry etc. Based upon these findings, we will devise a treatment programme. This may involve both manual and electro-therapy techniques, and they may be given a home exercise programme too.
This is a question you could write a whole book about! To put it briefly, firstly, a physiotherapist can advise on any exercise or home changes you can make to help keep your dog comfortable – your dog may not be able to chase balls in the park, but they can hunt for treats around your garden! Or they may benefit from raised food bowls, or some rugs on slippery floors. Exercise should be low-impact but consistent.
Secondly, targeted exercises can help build muscle to support the joints, and encourage good movement – we’re aiming to keep the dog supple and gentle exercises can be great for reducing joint pain.
Thirdly, a lot of discomfort from arthritis can come from compensatory issues, like tight and overworked muscles, so I use techniques like massage, acupressure and gentle joint mobilisations to ease to make them as comfortable as possible.
The short answer is no, not without some assessment and hands-on guidance, as it’s so individual.
One of the most important things you can do, is make note of what is normal for your dog, and be pro-active when that changes. For example, is your dog shuffling/pacing rather than properly walking or trotting? Are they only cocking one leg consistently, rather than using both? Have they stopped using a particular bed, or do they only ever lie on one side? Are they suddenly tiring much faster than they did previously? All these things can seem very minor, but might be early indicators of discomfort. A dog won’t limp unless something hurts!
I am currently based in Whitstable, but travel out to people’s homes or yards for the treatments, and cover most of the Kent area. Most animals seem to settle better in a familiar environment, and it’s important that they’re as relaxed as possible.
A typical equine session lasts around an hour and a half, and would be recommended at least 2-4 times a year, depending on how much work the horse is doing, and may be more often if there is a specific issue to deal with.
Canine sessions tend to be a little bit shorter, typically around an hour, sometimes up to an hour and a half, and the recommended frequency can vary hugely. Sometimes a dog will just have one session, for some guidance following a diagnosis of a condition like hip dysplasia, or some prefer to have regular reviews and check-ups. For example, I see several dogs with arthritis every 4-8 weeks, depending on the season and how they’re coping.
For competing dogs, it’s a good idea to get them checked at the beginning and end of the season, and possibly more often if they are doing a lot, or have injured themselves at all.
Dog’s undergoing rehabilitation may need a more intensive course, but that can also vary from roughly 4-5 sessions over 3 months for cruciate ligament surgery, up to sessions once or twice a week for a dog with severe spinal problems.
I would love for every dog that was diagnosed with a condition like arthritis or dysplasia would be referred by their vet for even just one session of physiotherapy – just to go over some simple exercises and easy management changes, that can add up to a massive difference for the dog.