Animal physio: helping to keep your dog fit and healthy

Lynn Bell is an animal rehab therapist at the Williams Lake Veterinary Hospital.

Lynn Bell is an animal rehab therapist at the Williams Lake Veterinary Hospital.

Under a vet’s direction she provides physio for animals, treating musculoskeletal issues: joints, ligament, tendons and nerves, and has also taken behavioural courses to help her in her work with animals.

“I treat many muscle sprains and strains and ligament injuries. One of the most common is cruciate ligament injuries in the knee. People get them too — often from hyperextension. With a dog, it is closely related to their conformation; in this case, how straight their knees are,” she said. “A dog can suffer a cruciate injury from jumping off something, slipping on the stairs or getting hit and bowled over by a bigger dog — these injuries can be very traumatic.”

Lynn does not treat medical conditions like liver or heart disease or cancer, but has done prodigious research and taken extensive training to provide the treatments she offers her four-legged clients.

“Sometimes I see them after they’ve had surgery to correct a cruciate injury, or early on to prevent a full-blown tear,” she continued.

She also treats things like hip dysplasia, arthritic and neurological conditions and back and neck injuries. “Dogs are just like us,” she added. “I see quite a few osteo-arthritic dogs. I help older dogs stay mobile. If dogs can become more mobile they will naturally exercise and move more.”

A physiotherapist for people for 31 years, she has been treating animals for the last 12. She said that she took courses in animal rehab, including an advanced course in 2002, adding that she can work with any animal, but that her work is mainly with dogs and the occasional cat. “I don’t diagnose or create exercise programs,” she explained. “I consult with the veterinarians: they create the plan and I carry it out.”

The move from people to animals was a natural one for Lynn. “I was always going to be a vet, but in Britain, where I’m from, the focus was mainly large animals, so I went into physiotherapy. An animal rehabilitation group contacted a group of us ‘physios’ and asked if we wanted to join — so I did,” she explained.

“Why not? Animals and people needing physio involve similar conditions and surgeries. Animals and people even have similar anatomies. Animal physio is much more popular in the U.S., the U.K. and Australia, where they offer degree programs — much more advanced than Canada.”

She was also instrumental in starting the original Williams Lake animal shelter, which started out as a shed with cages for cats. She worked on the project with several friends for more than 12 years.

Once the Animal Rehab Division of the Canadian Physiotherapy Association started offering courses, she got involved and decided that’s what she wanted to do.

“My friends weren’t surprised. They knew that’s where my heart lay. I like animals more than people: they don’t whine as much and they’re much more co-operative,” she said.

“I started out doing home visits under a vet referral system. I wrote letters to all the vets and found out that they were either all for it, or were not convinced of its benefits, and I found the vets here at Williams Lake Veterinary Hospital very progressive and open to the idea.”

When she first started out, she said that she had a muscle stimulator, an ultrasound machine and her hands. “I did home visits from here to Prince George and Kamloops, often with five dogs booked a day,” she stated.

“I still believe that there is great benefit to home visits, and sometimes a vet will ask me to do one. Animals are much less stressed; I also get to see their home setting — the yard, the stairs, the floors — the animal’s everyday environment.”

The room where she works with animals at the veterinary hospital is spacious, comfortable and convenient for her clients. She said that Dr. Ross Hawkes, veterinarian and clinic owner, invited her to set up on site and she moved in November 2012 – something she calls “a great arrangement for all of us.”

Exercise is a big part of the plans she uses for animals. She has a treadmill, ‘peanut’ balls for things like stretching, balancing and strengthening, steps of various heights and textures and a range of obstacle equipment. Every piece is specially designed to help. “I try to set owners up with a home-based program that works for them, geared to their lifestyle, schedule, likes and dislikes and to what will work best for them and their pet,” she said.

“If people make the call to set up an appointment with me, they’re already committed. The majority will see immediate improvement after the first treatment and that’s what keeps them motivated.”

Even though the vet does the diagnosis, Lynn does her own thorough assessment of the animal. “It’s a great working relationship between me and the clinic that benefits our clients and, bottom line, provides a better quality of life for these dogs,” she continued. “There aren’t a lot of alternatives to physio, other than medication. In a lot of cases this really reduces the medication an animal needs, resulting in fewer side effects.”

She teaches owners how to do massage and stretches — giving them the tools to help their pet, and helping to reduce their stress. “This is something safe and beneficial that you can do for your dog. If you’re going to relax and watch TV and pet your dog, you can turn that into something truly beneficial,” she said.

“It’s better than petting, and it makes people closer to their dog.”

Lynn also does spinal mobilizations and works with stiff joints, using ultrasound and muscle stimulation. “I’ve seen wasted shoulder muscles on an injured horse restored in three weeks using muscle stimulation,” she noted. “After surgery these treatments are very helpful when an animal has reduced movement. They don’t cause trauma to the site —they really work.”

Client education and injury prevention is also very important to Lynn. “I have given talks to kennel clubs to teach stretching and massage and am trying to get into more conformation analysis for ‘at risk’ dogs to try to prevent injuries, especially in performance animals,” she stated.

She said that animals will tell you without words how they hurt, where they hurt and what they will allow you to do to help. “They tell you so much – you have to watch and listen and pay attention to all the subtleties,” she said. “You have to be aware of the whole dog.

“My goal, and my reward is when someone says, ‘Oh my god, they’re doing so well and they’re so much better.’ I want the owner and the animal to live together as long as they can with the best quality of life possible,” she concluded.

“I have had clients say, ‘You have given me more quality years with my dog than I would ever had otherwise.’”