When your dog is hurting, there’s help beyond the vet’s: Physical therapy; holistic and alternative medicine can speed recovery
It’s gut-wrenching when you find your pet badly injured and you don’t even know if it’ll live. They can’t tell us what hurts, or even what happened. You may never have to deal with a seriously injured pet or a debilitating chronic condition, but eventually you’ll help them through the infirmities of old age, or even make a life or death decision.
Physical rehabilitation therapy for animals was almost unheard of twenty years ago. But veterinary medicine, just like its human counterpart, has evolved and improved so our pets, too, are enjoying longer and healthier lives. And it’s no secret that we don’t mind spending billions on our pets, including veterinary care. And beyond veterinary medicine, now we have access to physical rehabilitation, acupuncture and other alternative medicine to help our animals recover from injuries, surgery and live comfortably in their later years. But many desperate for help are unaware of these emerging therapies until a pet is stricken. On November 13, one of my Chesapeake Bay Retrievers collapsed, in the blink of an eye going from athletic, healthy four year old to near total paralysis. Earlier in the day Tanzy had been fine. We rushed her to our regular vet, who is exceptionally competent and thorough, but as we had no idea of what brought on the collapse, he was stumped. So was the 24-hour emergency vet where she spent the night in intensive care hooked to an IV and catheterized. A battery of tests were clear for tick diseases, tetanus and more exotic conditions, and she remained paralyzed the next morning. My choices were to visit a third vet, a neurology specialist, or euthanasia.
At Bush Veterinary Neurological Services in Leesburg, a diagnostic MRI revealed two ruptured vertebrae in Tanzy’s neck. Dr. Brewer went over them with me and said Tanzy would need immediate surgery. As serious as her injuries were, he was encouraging. “We actually do two or three of these [surgeries] a week,” he explained, adding that BVNS has a better than 90 percent success rate. Her prognosis wasn’t as good. Many of the surgeries BVNS routinely does are on long-backed breeds prone to disc issues and/or dogs with congenital or old-age related conditions. Because she had fragments and debris as well as blood in her spinal column from the ruptures, there was a higher chance she’d never be able to walk, or even die during the surgery. I pulled out my credit card, signed the forms, and gave the OK. Dr. Brewer operated on Tanzy the evening of Nov. 14 and called to report the two-hour surgery had gone well; now we just needed to wait until the swelling subsided.
Three days after surgery, she still couldn’t move or even lift her head. I did some soul searching and agonizing. Even though the surgeon had cautioned that recovery would take months and it would be four to six weeks before she’d be able to stand or move on her own, the sight of my dog, heavily sedated and unable to even lift her head, was heartbreaking. Would the kindest thing to do, after all that, be euthanasia? Time to research physical rehabilitation for dogs. But there aren’t many places that do it, since it’s a fairly new field.
In Virginia, animal physical rehabilitation is done by veterinarians or by licensed veterinary technicians who’ve undergone a minimum of two years of specialized training. Luckily I found Jason Strahin, a Certified Canine Rehabilitation Therapist, head of the rehabilitation division of Old Mill Veterinary Hospital in Leesburg. He was optimistic about getting Tanzy back on her feet within a week and in fact, eager for the challenge. Five days after surgery, I moved her to Old Mill, and Strahin went to work the day she arrived with cold laser therapy. A veterinary laser concentrates a narrow bandwidth of UV rays onto a small area, which promotes circulation and cell regeneration to speed the healing process. It also has anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial effects, and cannot cause burns when properly used.
Strahin’s rehab program for Tanzy included range of motion exercises, and sessions in his specialized canine underwater treadmill. At only 5 days post-surgery, she could neither stand nor hold her head up on her own, so Strahin got right in the water with her. Her legs flopped and knuckled; it was awkward and clumsy looking, but she was moving her legs on her own and actually seemed to enjoy it. Strahin worked with her intensively that first week, along with his other client dogs. Patients included Labrador Retrievers recovering from cruciate ligament surgery; to arthritic, overweight and geriatric dogs getting treatments, and Tanzy. Within just days she was up and moving on her own, at first doing what Strahin called “the seal flop” and he assured me she’d be standing and walking by the end of the week.
“Probably 75 percent of my patients are rehabbing from injuries,” Strahin said. “But I also work on chronic conditions like hip dysplasia and degenerative myelopathy [a progressive spinal paralysis certain breeds are prone to, similar to ALS in humans] overweight and geriatric problems like osteoarthritis. Basically old age management things.” Water treadmill exercise is an excellent low-impact way to strengthen muscles and can be tailored to the patient, whether it’s an old dog with painful arthritis, or a young one, like mine, recovering from major trauma. With Strahin’s combination of rehab therapies and dedication, Tanzy was able to stand and walk unaided out of her kennel to come home before Thanksgiving, a full three weeks ahead of schedule.
Another increasingly popular adjunct to traditional veterinary medicine, as well as rehabilitation and physical therapy, is acupuncture and Chinese medicine. Locally, Dr. Rebecca Verna operates a veterinary practice in Fauquier County that incorporates traditional as well as holistic treatment. Although she’s a licensed veterinarian, her practice specializes in physical therapy and rehabilitation, using acupuncture for healing and pain management. She also uses Chinese herbology and homeopathic medicines and enjoys a loyal clientele as she’s willing to take on the tough cases, including cancers, that have not responded to traditional treatments. “By using a combination of herbs, diet and acupuncture, we’ve had some really dramatic improvements,” she said. Dr. Verna’s Paws for Holistic Vet Care in Marshall, Va., is one of a small but increasing number of practices utilizing non-traditional methods; energy based treatments such as Reiki, and herbology and homeopathic medicines and food therapy for animals. She also designs nutrition programs to help managing chronic conditions using Chinese herbs and a raw diet, noting that it can greatly increase longevity as well as cure a range of conditions from allergies to ear infections. Chronic ailments such as disc degeneration, arthritis, and hip dysplasia make up about 60 percent of her cases. The rest are split fairly evenly between injury rehabilitation and cancer cases.
Tanzy, along with her grandmother Puffin, who at nearly 14 is stiff and arthritic, started acupuncture treatment Dec. 2. Dr. Verna used the laser and chiropractic adjustments, and performed acupuncture on them with a calm, practiced hand. Neither dog so much as flinched at the needles, relaxing completely during their treatments. There was immediate improvement in both that has continued after twice-weekly visits; old Puffin can even navigate the stairs now, something she hadn’t done in months.
Tanzy still has much to do to return to her former health. She can walk and run, but still has balance problems. She has to be supervised outside on our farm, since we suspect her injury came from rough play with the other dogs. She’ll continue the rehab at Old Mill letting Strahin work his magic, and she’ll get regular laser and acupuncture treatments at Dr. Verna’s Paws for Holistic Vet Care. She’ll also start swimming at the Northern Virginia Animal Swim Center in Middleburg to continue strengthening her muscles in the hope that by summer she can safely swim in our ponds. We’ll need to use a harness instead of a collar on her, and she may never be able to duck hunt or compete in AKC hunting tests, but we do know she can live a healthy, normal life now. I hope by sharing Tanzy’s journey, local pet owners learn of the resources available to help injured or aging pets gain mobility, freedom from pain and confidence.
Written by: Julie Reardon