Pet Connection by Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker

Cat Rehab

Cats with painful conditions or injuries can benefit from physical rehab techniques

By Kim Campbell Thornton

Andrews McMeel Syndication

Underwater treadmills, exercise balls, wobble boards, range of motion exercises: I’m not talking about the offerings at your local gym, but about rehab options for cats. Yes, cats.

While you might have trouble imagining a cat powering through an underwater treadmill workout, it turns out that given the right motivation and handling, cats respond well to rehab therapies that help to relieve pain and heal injuries.

Thanks to their anatomy -- being loose jointed and light on their paws -- cats are less likely than dogs to suffer traumatic injuries such as broken bones from falls, but with age they begin to develop stiff hips, elbows, stifles (knees) and tarsi (ankle) joints. Back arthritis is common, too. In cats older than 6 years, 61 percent show signs of degenerative joint disease, a figure that rises to 90 percent in cats older than 12 years.

“If you have a cat that’s middle-aged, this cat most likely is going to develop degenerative joint disease,” said Carolina Medina, DVM, in last month’s VMX presentation "Purrfect Rehab: Mobility and Pain Management Techniques for Cats."

Cats can also suffer nerve damage, such as vascular or compressive injuries to the spinal cord, or deformities that make it difficult for them to use their limbs. An example would be a heritable condition called sacrocaudal dysgenesis, seen in Manx cats. This malformation of the vertebrae of the lower back and tail can cause them to have trouble using their hind legs.

Obesity puts pressure on already painful joints and decreases quality of life. These conditions and more can respond to rehab techniques.

If your cat’s behavior has changed, she may be in pain. The most common signs of pain in cats are reduced activity, especially at night, when cats tend to be more active; decreased frequency of jumping; resisting handling or petting, especially on the back; and a stiff gait. If your cat shows these signs, ask your veterinarian about physical rehab exercises and other techniques, such as acupuncture and cold laser, which can help.

Passive and active range of motion exercises help to improve joint integrity, decrease pain and lubricate joints. Walking over unsteady surfaces such as wobble boards and exercise balls build core strength and balance and improve the cat’s perception of where his limbs are and how they’re moving. Stepping over cavaletti rails improves stride length and range of motion.

Among Dr. Medina’s patients, a paralyzed kitten gets a workout by chasing a ball and an 11-year-old cat with intervertebral disc disease walks over cavaletti and performs assisted activities on exercise equipment. For the latter cat, the reward for her efforts is to walk into her carrier and go home.

Ways to help cats enjoy their workouts -- or at least relax during them -- include the use of synthetic calming pheromones in the environment, heat lamps and warming blankets to provide a cat’s preferred ambient temperature of 84 degrees Fahrenheit to 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and barring barking dogs from the room.

At home, help cats by providing cat trees with lower perches, steps to furniture, soft bedding and shallow litter boxes. For instance, a long, shallow seed tray is easy for a cat to enter and exit. Decreasing the amount of litter in the box provides a more stable surface for unsteady cats to walk on.

The main thing to know is that unlike dogs, cats aren’t people pleasers. They will do the exercises and sometimes even seem to enjoy them, but when they’re done, they’re done. Don’t try to push them further, Dr. Medina says.

“Short sessions are critical. Even food-motivated cats are going to get bored.”


What’s behind dog’s

behavior change?

Q: My dog never goes anywhere but the living room and kitchen. He’s a senior and has arthritis in the hips, so he doesn’t move much, but lately, every morning he is lying in my bedroom doorway. It unnerves me because I know dogs sometimes know when someone has health problems. He didn’t used to do that. Any ideas? -- via email

A: You are right that dogs (and cats) seem to have a sixth sense about human illnesses. Among other things, they can sniff out cancer, alert people to oncoming epileptic seizures, and tell when a person’s blood sugar is too low or too high. Those amazing diagnostic skills are likely related to their sensitivity to changes in odor as well as to their 24/7 observations of us. Dogs and cats have keen senses of smell, which may enable them to notice subtle changes in body odor or breath that may be caused by disease.

And pets notice everything about us. Even if we have an underlying disease that isn’t causing obvious symptoms, it may have made enough of a change in us that our pets pick up on it.

In your case, though, I’m guessing that your aging dog simply has a greater need for your companionship. As animals get older and undergo physical changes that may make them feel less steady, they may take comfort from our presence. Your dog may have a desire to be closer to you at night so he moves to the doorway where he likely has a better shot at hearing and smelling you as you sleep.

Any time your dog has a behavior change, it’s a good idea to take him to the veterinarian for a checkup. If he has pain or the beginnings of dementia, your veterinarian can prescribe medication to help. -- Dr. Marty Becker

Do you have a pet question? Send it to or visit


Bichon frise is

in like Flynn

-- A bichon frise named Flynn walked away with the title top dog after winning best in show at the Westminster Kennel Club show last month. More formally known as GCHP CH Belle Creek’s All I Care About Is Love, the 5-year-old dog with the poufy white coat and wagging tail lives up to his name and to the breed’s reputation as cheerful clowns who love their people. The downside? That fluffy white coat requires frequent grooming by a professional or a skilled, dedicated owner to maintain its beautiful appearance, and the dogs can sometimes take a pass on that whole housetraining thing.

-- Contrary to conventional wisdom, rabbits were not domesticated by French monks some 1,400 years ago when Pope Gregory the Great decreed that newborn bunnies didn’t count as meat during Lent. That myth regarding rabbit domestication was debunked recently when Greger Larson at the University of Oxford asked archaeologist Evan Irving-Pease to run down a citation from the Vatican regarding Pope Gregory’s edict. Turns out there wasn’t one. In a Feb. 14 article in The Atlantic, writer Ed Yong says neither history nor archaeology nor genetics can accurately pinpoint when rabbits were domesticated. Most likely, bunny domestication occurred gradually over centuries as humans, intentionally or not, selected for different traits depending on their needs.

-- You know that animals can transmit diseases to humans, conditions called zoonoses, such as rabies (a virus), ringworm (a fungus) and various bacterial infections. But in rare instances, humans can also transmit diseases, known as reverse zoonoses, to pets. They include ringworm, influenza, salmonella, giardia, MRSA, mumps and tuberculosis. And while it’s not a disease, secondhand smoke can affect pets who live with smokers. To keep yourself and pets safe from transmissible diseases, wash hands thoroughly before and after caring for animals. -- Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker


Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by "The Dr. Oz Show" veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and award-winning journalist Kim Campbell Thornton. They are affiliated with and are the authors of many best-selling pet-care books. Joining them is dog trainer and behavior consultant Mikkel Becker. Dr. Becker can be found at or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker. Kim Campbell Thornton is at and on Twitter at kkcthornton. Mikkel Becker is at and on Twitter at MikkelBecker.