Just like humans who hurt their back, physical therapy for dogs with spine problems can be a huge benefit. It can increase mobility, improve strength and maintain overall health. Canine rehab can be done in a clinic setting and there are dog physical therapy exercises you can do at home. Both can be a big advantage to your dog’s well-being.
My city didn’t have a canine physical therapist when my dog, Sophie, started to have weakness in her hind legs. I think this is true for many pet families.
To help, I spent hours researching exercises Sophie and I could do together and I’ve included instructions for each of them in this article. They’re all routine rehab and massage techniques prescribed by veterinarians and canine PTs to improve conditions that range from arthritis to disc disease and neurological disorders.
They’re easy to learn and most dogs will like the time they spend doing them with you. That said, be sure to check with your vet before starting the exercises.
Note: Every case of spine disease or injury is unique. Your dog’s vet will know whether or not your pup can tolerate the exercises below. Please get the okay before starting. And remember to stop any exercise that’s painful for your dog. (This post contains some affiliate links.)
Spine conditions that respond well to physical therapy
The list of spine conditions that benefit from rehab exercise is long. These are the most common:
- Intervertebral Disc Disease (IVDD)
- Spine injury
- Recovery after spine surgery
- Degenerative Myelopathy (DM)
- Hind end weakness
- Neurological conditions
- Fibrocartilaginous Embolism Stroke (FCE)
When your dog first comes home from the hospital
Laurie Edge-Hughes, BScPT, MAnimSt, CAFCI, CCRT is a world-renown canine physical therapist. She wrote the course that teaches health professionals how to become a PT for dogs.
Her recommendation for when your dog comes home from the hospital after spine surgery, an IVDD episode, or FCE stroke is to take it slow.
“Your job is to provide basic nursing care,” said Laurie. “This includes the prevention of pressure sores by moving them every 4 hours and gently washing them daily with a warm wet towel to prevent urine scald.”
Any physical therapy should be limited to lightly stimulating their limbs.
Dog physical therapy exercises to do during the early stages of recovery
Many dogs are confined to crate rest during the first 3 to 4 weeks after coming home. Below are gentle exercises for that period.
A light massage up and down your dog’s body will improve circulation and increase muscle tone. During the first week, massage your pup at least 3 times a day for very short periods of time. Place your dog on their side while you rub each major muscle group. Start at the shoulders and work your way down to the rear limbs. Remember this isn’t a deep tissue massage. It’s a slow gentle rub down.
The goal of this exercise is to improve the chances for your dog to regain “deep pain sensations”or feeling in their limbs and paws. To do the exercise, simply pull or squeeze the toes on each affected paw. Your touch should be firm, but NOT hard enough to injure your dog. If you do this exercise on a healthy able-bodied dog, they would automatically pull their leg away from your pinch. It’s a natural reflex to pull away from a painful stimulus. The goal is to see if your dog’s body can relearn this response.
Rehab exercises after 3 to 4 weeks of crate rest
Be sure to get your vet’s approval before starting these exercises.
Laurie’s recommendation to pet parents is to NOT have a strict physical therapy schedule.
“I recommend pet owners throw exercise and rehab into their regular daily routine. If you’re watching TV, include range-of-motion exercises or roll them from side to side. This makes exercise fun and relaxing for you and your dog.”
Passive Range of Motion (PROM)
Only start this exercise if you can move your dog’s limbs in all directions without causing pain to your pup. Start the range of motion technique with your dog on lying on their side. Gently flex and release each toe on one limb, 10 times. Next slowly flex the leg out and then into the hip 10 times. And finally, slowly rotate the limb in a circular motion. It should look like a human when we ride a bike. First circle in one direction and then reverse it. Once you’ve finished with one limb, move to the next. Then gently flip your dog to the other side and repeat the exercise.
This exercise is good for dogs who are recovering from surgery and those that are paralyzed. It helps with balance, weight-bearing and strengthening the core. Lie your dog on their side while you gently grab the limbs. Roll the body from side to side. If your dog does well with this, add a large balance ball to the routine. Lie your dog face down on top of the ball and slowly roll the ball from side to side. Dogs gain balance from this technique because they’re using their abdominal muscles. The exercise also benefits dogs in wheelchairs who need to keep their stomach/core muscles strong.
Physical therapy exercises for dogs who can stand or almost stand
Stand and Count
Have your dog stand up and time how long it takes before they need to sit or lie down. The goal is to slowly increase their standing time, if they tolerate it.
Stand and Shift Weight
While your dog is standing, gently push the hips to one side. It only needs to be an inch or two. The goal is to see if your dog can correct the push and center their position on their own. If your dog has trouble, try supporting their body with one hand under their belly while doing the exercise. Do 5 repetitions.
Sit and Stand
Have your dog sit and then stand up. Do this 5 times to increase strength.
Have your dog walk in front of you and gently pinch the tip of their tail as you follow behind. This helps improve awareness of the legs and tail.
This can be done in a standing or sitting position. Hold a small treat up, higher than your dog’s head. It will cause your dog to lift their head and neck to grab the treat. Next, hold the treat down to your dog’s chest so they lower their head to grab it. Repeat this 15 times. Once your dog has accomplished this skill, place the treat to one side of your dog and then the other so they have to reach around to get it.
Here’s a video with the basic physical therapy exercises you can do at home.
Don’t forget about playtime
When your dog is released from crate rest, be sure to take them outdoors. It doesn’t matter if they walk with a dog wheelchair, a harness, use a stroller, or scoot around – dogs love spending time outside. The fresh air, playtime and spending an hour cruising their neighborhood can be the best medicine for a disabled pooch.
If your dog’s in a wheelchair or harness, practice walking on different terrains. Change from a flat surface to one with a slight slope or walk on the grass and then the sidewalk. Each surface helps your dog with balance.
Being outdoors is mentally stimulating and fun for your pup, so make the walk casual and stress free. Walking also increases a dog’s appetite and improves digestion. So, grab your shoes, put your pup in their cart and go for a walk.
One final reminder
The exercises in this story are general recommendations. Many dogs won’t be able to accomplish all of them, but that’s okay. Spine disease and paralysis in dogs is unique to every patient. Some dogs regain mobility and many do not.
If possible, have your veterinarian or a licensed canine physical therapist approve a list of rehab exercises appropriate for your individual pet.
And please keep in mind that your dog can have a happy life whether or not they will walk again.
Cover photo – Thank you to pet Mom Jen Z. for sharing this picture of Josie, her paralyzed dog, doing physical therapy on a balance ball.