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

Pet Rehab

Physical rehab helps pets regain mobility and strength

By Kim Campbell Thornton

Andrews McMeel Syndication

My dog Keeper, who is about 12 years old, started developing a wobbly hind end last year, which has gradually worsened. After a visit to a veterinary rehab practice recently, he was found to have some neurological weakness, mild back pain and mild arthritis in his left elbow. The good news is that rehab exercises should help him regain some strength and mobility.

Veterinary rehab -- the term physical therapy is reserved for practitioners treating humans -- can help dogs, cats and other animals with arthritis, injuries, neurologic and orthopedic problems, obesity and more.

Christopher, a cavalier King Charles spaniel, experienced an accident last December that left him with a hind leg fractured in two places and a wrist fracture. Surgeons weren’t sure if he would regain full mobility. After an eight-week recovery period, he started eight weeks of rehab to help rebuild muscle and regain hind end awareness and confidence. Owner Alisha Lockleer of Everett, Washington, has signed him up for six more weeks, saying it has been a critical part of his recovery. He’s now back to racing around the house with his fellow cavaliers.

“It was worth every penny,” she says.

Rehab isn’t just for injured or aging pets. Many canine athletes benefit from exercises that help them stay in top condition.

Laurie McCauley, DVM, board-certified in sports medicine and rehabilitation, recalls her patient Sophie, a 9-year-old high-level agility competitor. Sophie’s owner thought her dog was in top shape, but Dr. McCauley identified some areas of weakness and recommended targeted exercises to strengthen her.

“She is faster and more powerful than she was when she was significantly younger,” Dr. McCauley says.

If you’ve undergone physical therapy yourself, equipment used in pet rehab may look familiar. Patients can be found stepping over poles, called cavaletti, or through ladder rungs; they balance on donut-shaped balls, bone-shaped platforms, rocker boards and discs. Steps, ramps, cushions, braces and other items may come into play.

Stepping over cavaletti or going up stairs or ramps requires pets to think about picking up their paws instead of dragging them. The goal is to help build core strength and improve balance, body awareness and motor skills.

Low-impact workouts on underwater treadmills or in pools allow dogs -- and cats -- to gain strength and range of motion or lose weight without stressing joints.

“People who don’t have any experience with rehab sometimes don’t understand the amount of difference these things can make,” says Evelyn Orenbuch, DVM, board-certified in sports medicine and rehabilitation. “Figuring out where the pain is, why they are like this, is key, and that’s what we’re trained to do.”

There’s homework, too. We help Keeper step over cavaletti, walk him on varying surfaces -- including grass and mulch -- and go to the park, where he can walk up and down hills. He doesn’t mind the daily massages, either.

For dogs who live at a distance from a practice, rehab veterinarians may offer video consults to see how the dog is doing. That allows them to ensure owners and pets are performing exercises correctly and gauge the animal’s progress until the next in-person visit.

Consider rehab any time pets have pain or mobility issues. Getting them seen early by a board-certified rehab veterinarian can help to prevent minor problems from turning into painful lameness or serious injuries, such as cruciate ligament tears. Going in sooner rather than later is also a way to learn where your pet is weak so you can start preventive exercises at home.

“If we can find it and fix it early, improve motion, strengthen the dog to support the joint so you don’t have a painful dog, you have a dog that can be 14, 15, 16, 17 and still be pain-free,” Dr. McCauley says. “And I think doing exercises helps the human-animal bond.”


“Clawsibly” correct

scratch training

Q: Why shouldn’t I declaw my cat? How else am I going to protect my furnishings from his claws?

A: Scratching is a natural behavior for cats, and declawing shouldn't be the first strategy for solving a scratching problem. Give your cat a chance to learn and to follow the rules. You might be surprised at how easy it is to teach him where to scratch.

First, provide him with a tall cat tree where he can look down on his surroundings and his people. Choose one covered with sisal, a natural ropelike fiber, that’s attractive for cats to scratch. Make the cat tree even more appealing by playing games with your cat on it, leaving treats on it for him to find, and petting and praising him for scratching on it. And place it near the area where your cat already likes to scratch so he has an easily accessible alternative.

You can also spray it with a solution called Feliscratch, made to entice cats to scratch. It works by way of visual and pheromonal territory messages that tell other cats, “This is my place!” When the cat scratches, blue marks are left behind, reinforcing the pheromone message with visual displays of claw marks.

Other approved scratching options include horizontal posts (some cats prefer those to reaching high on a vertical post), trays covered in corrugated cardboard, or scratching pads hung from doorknobs. Try several to see which your cat likes best.

At the same time, make your furniture unattractive as a scratching area. Put large pieces of double-sided tape such as Sticky Paws on furniture areas where your cat likes to scratch. Cats don’t like to touch sticky surfaces, so they’ll go elsewhere to do their scratching. For more tips, visit -- Dr. Marty Becker

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


Bunny care

health hints

-- For your bunny’s good health, provide pet care and a good diet. Find a veterinarian known to be good with rabbits -- a local rabbit rescue can make recommendations. Get your rabbit spayed or neutered. In addition to keeping your rabbit from reproducing, you'll have a better pet. Unaltered rabbits can have behavior problems such as aggression and urine spraying. Your rabbit will need an annual wellness check, and a good rabbit vet will help you catch little health problems before they become big ones. Feed a variety of fresh leafy greens and an unlimited supply of fresh grass hay. Even if you feed pellets, give your rabbit as much fresh grass hay as he wants. For treats, bunnies love little bits of fruits (about the size of your pinkie fingernail) and more leafy greens.

-- The average daily water intake for a dog is about 3 ounces for every 5 pounds of body weight, so a 25-pound dog would drink about a pint of water daily under average conditions. The amount goes up if the weather is hot, the dog is exercising or both. Depending on whether a pet eats canned or dry food, up to half of a pet's daily water consumption can come from food. Dogs drink a lot of water, not only because they need it for normal bodily functioning, but also to create moist nasal mucus to help them with their keen sense of smell.

-- Last year, Americans spent a record $103.6 billion on their pets. Broken down, that comes to $42 billion for food and treats; $22.1 billion for supplies, live animals and over-the-counter medications; $31.4 billion for veterinary care and product sales; and $8.1 billion on services such as grooming, boarding, training, pet sitting and pet health insurance. This year? Estimates are that we’ll spend $109.6 billion on our pets. -- 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, founder of the Fear Free organization and author of many best-selling pet care books, and award-winning journalist Kim Campbell Thornton. Joining them is behavior consultant and lead animal trainer for Fear Free Pets 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.