Wednesday 24 January 2018

Veterinary world slow to embrace physical therapy

Pete Wedderburn

IN ORDER to be allowed to continue to practice in Ireland, vets need to attend a certain amount of continuing eduction every year. The most convenient way to do this is often to attend a conference: a whole year of updating can be achieved in an intensive three or four days of lectures.

Irish vets organise their own annual companion animal (pet) conference, with invited speakers from around the world. The next one happens in Athlone, early in February. Is your local vet going? And if not, why not?

Pet owners should try asking their own vets about what sort of further education they attend: we vets are often keen to talk about our professional interests with interested clients, and curious owners may enjoy finding out what we're learning.

Conferences are still the main way to discover new trends in the diagnosis and treatment of accidents and illnesses. There are plenty of other sources of information, such as books, journals, and, of course, the internet. But there's something about people gathering in large groups in one location that has a unique value. Ideas and information can be given out more effectively and shared more rapidly and more widely.

I attend at least two conferences every year, at home in Ireland, and overseas in the UK, USA or Europe. This allows me to keep a close eye on the latest ideas that are emerging across the whole area of veterinary care. Some vets have a specialised role within a practice, with particular interests such as orthopaedics, or feline medicine. My own speciality - as a vet in practice and a vet in the media - is NOT to have a speciality: I aim to learn a little about a lot, rather than a lot about a little. I try to maintain a reasonable understanding of as many different facets of pet care as possible.

Most often, new information and ideas are developments of established disciplines: recently developed drugs, novel surgical techniques or more refined ways of dealing with dog behaviour problems. But from time to time, entirely new ways of treating animals emerge. One recent example of this is the area of physical therapy. Over the past five years, there have been an increasing number of conference presentations on this subject, from physiotherapy to hydrotherapy to therapeutic massage of pets.

Physical therapy is well established in the human medical world. Surgeons are careful to instruct patients about its importance: if people don't follow up their new hip surgery with the hard work of post-operative exercises, their recovery will be slower and the final result will not be as good.

The veterinary world has been slower to appreciate the value of physical therapy. Of course it's more complicated: you can't make a dog carry out twenty repeats of knee-stretching exercises, and if you tell a cat to do twice daily neck rotations, you'll just receive a baleful stare in reply. But in recent years, vets have realised that there are other ways of achieving the same goal of these voluntary exercises.

Holly the Collie recently had an operation to repair a torn cruciate ligament in her knee. Her post-operative care included passive range of motion (PROM) exercises during which her owner gently flexed, extended, and rotated her knee.

Jessie the Golden Retriever is on pain relief and other drugs for the arthritis in her hips, but she also does so-called "active range of motion exercises" during which she is encouraged to move and stretch her joints. These include leash walking up and down kerbs, ramps and stairs, repeated sit-stand exercises, weaving through a line of poles or cones,

walking in a figure-of-eight pattern, and walking forwards, backwards, and to both sides. She's also taken over short obstacle courses, stepping over horizontal poles set at varying heights and distances apart. Her owner also gives Jessie regular massages of the muscles around her hip, which she really seems to appreciate.

Bob the German Shepherd has been to a veterinary physiotherapist for assistance in recovery from a complicated fracture to his left back leg. He's been given exercises that are reminiscent of those given to human patients, including

the use of physioballs, where his feet are placed on a large ball that is then rolled or rocked, the use of a rocker board in a similar way, and standing on balance blocks that can be slid in different directions. These techniques encourage muscle development and joint flexibility that might never happen if he just carried on with his usual daily routines.

Jingo is a Labrador who has suffered from severe arthritis of her knees for several years. Her owner has found that regular hydrotherapy makes a big difference to her. She regularly visits the Canine Hydrotherapy and Rehabilitation Centre in County Kildare, where she swims in the special, 11m long, doggy swimming pool, followed by sessions on an

underwater treadmill. The techniques allow her to exercise her muscles while the water supports the weight of her body, minimising the stress on her creaky, arthritic joints.

These are just a few examples of the ways that physical therapy can help pets: there are many more possibilities. If you feel that your pet could benefit from this type of treatment, ask your local vet. And if necessary, ask your vet to refer you to a veterinary physiotherapist.

Physical therapy is just one of the latest "new developments" in the veterinary world: I wonder what new trend will emerge from my veterinary conference trips during this coming year?

For more about the upcoming conference for Irish pet vets, visit

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