COVID STATUS UPDATE:   Building reopened to clients.

Small Animal Physical Rehabilitation

Side Menu
Feline on water treadmill

Small Animal Physical Rehabilitation Service

We believe that all patients should have the opportunity to have physical rehabilitation following injury or surgery of the musculoskeletal or neurologic systems. Our goal is to provide the highest standard of rehabilitative care and personal attention to each patient and their owner. We offer not only tried-and-true physical therapy treatments that have been used in humans for decades but also cutting-edge therapies being developed every day in both human and animal medicine. Our mission is to provide scientifically proven treatment to improve the quality and quantity of life of our companion animals, thereby enriching the lives of the families they belong to!

The Small Animal Physical Rehabilitation Service at the University of Tennessee Veterinary Medical Center is a worldwide leader in the area of physical rehabilitation of small animals. Our service includes two board-certified Diplomates of the American College of Veterinary Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation (one is also a veterinary orthopedic surgery specialist), a resident (licensed veterinarians pursuing specialty training), two veterinary nurses, fourth-year veterinary students, and a veterinary assistant. We work with other specialties at our hospital such as neurology, orthopedics, nutrition, and oncology to provide comprehensive state-of-the-art care for patients following surgery or for medical management of musculoskeletal and neurologic disorders.

There are many benefits of physical rehabilitation for animals. They include but are not limited to improved mobility with less pain whether from age, disease or surgery, increased muscle mass for younger, active dogs to help prevent injury, helping maintain muscle mass for our senior dogs as they age. Rehabilitation is crucial for a quicker return to function for post-operative patients. It also provides a non-invasive alternative to surgery for animals that may not be eligible for surgery as well as a positive bonding activity as the patient and client work together during the healing process.


Non-surgical treatments/procedures (modalities)

Cryotherapy or cold therapy is used in patients with post-operative edema (swelling)/pain, musculoskeletal trauma, pain due to muscle spasm, and after exercise to prevent edema/pain due to inflammation. Pain relief and edema reduction are the major benefits seen with cryotherapy.

Heat therapy relieves pain in many ways. It increases blood flow, helping to wash out inflammatory chemicals and enzymes, and promotes tissue relaxation to reduce muscle spasms. It also increases muscle elasticity in weak or compromised muscles to help during stretching and exercise.

Therapeutic Massage is the systematic manipulation of the body’s soft tissues. It prevents adhesions of muscles, tendons, and ligaments, improves soft tissue relaxation, muscle flexibility, local blood flow, and reduces muscle spasm and joint stiffness. Therapeutic massage also helps reduce pain by stimulating the release of endorphins and decreasing inflammation and edema that can cause pressure on the surrounding pain fibers.

Manual Therapy is the application of forces to soft tissues and joints by the therapist to help increase range of motion and decrease pain for impaired muscles and joints. Some of the manual therapies we perform are acupressure, trigger point release, deep friction massage, joint mobilization, and therapeutic massage.

Therapeutic Laser (photobiomodulation) is a noninvasive procedure that uses light to stimulate tissue healing through cell regeneration and is thought to modulate pain by releasing endorphins and blocking pain pathways.

Therapeutic Ultrasound provides deep heat to tissues to help reduce pain and spasms and increase tissue extensibility in cases of muscle contracture. Non-thermal effects include wound healing, scar tissue remodeling, and treatment for acute muscle/tendon injuries.

Electrical Stimulation (e-stim) causes muscle to contract and relax involuntarily which reduces muscle atrophy in animals that cannot walk. E-stim increases blood flow and cell metabolism and provides pain relief through reducing swelling and causing the body to release its innate pain-relieving opioids.

Extracorporeal Shock Wave Therapy is a focused sound wave that triggers biological responses within diseased tissue providing pain relief, release of growth factors to stimulate tissue healing, as well as slowing the degenerative effects of osteoarthritis.

Hydrotherapy has multiple properties that make it a perfect mode of exercise for animals with compromised mobility as well as providing low-impact fitness conditioning. The water’s buoyancy helps avoid high-impact stress on the joints of osteoarthritic or post-surgical dogs. It is also very helpful with overweight dogs because they can exercise for longer than they can on dry land. The pressure the water exerts on the body reduces edema in the limbs and joints while also providing neurologic feedback to increase awareness of limb position. The water temperature in our treadmills and pool is between 88-92 degrees Fahrenheit which increases circulation, improves joint flexibility, and decreases joint pain. Among other benefits, hydrotherapy helps the animal realize movement does not have to mean pain. Exercising in water helps the osteoarthritic animal perform activity with less pain, provides resistance for muscle building and cardiovascular strengthening and increases metabolism for weight loss. Many of our patients’ owners say they can see a difference in their animal’s mobility after just one session in the underwater treadmill.

Therapeutic Exercises – Exercise leads to the release of certain neurotransmitters in the brain which alleviates physical pain through endorphin release while also providing mood enhancement (because of the release of dopamine and serotonin). Other benefits include neurogenesis (through training and proper form, the body learns to use the muscles more efficiently due to new motor pathways), muscle strengthening and confidence building. In our therapy, we include endurance, strengthening, flexibility, and balance and coordination exercises.

Home Exercise Programs – In addition to in-clinic therapies, we provide exercises to perform at home with your pet to maximize his/her recovery or maintenance. These will be exercises we have tried with your pet, and we will teach you how to perform each one. Client education is a big part of our job. It is very important you understand why we choose certain exercises and how to perform them correctly for optimal results.

Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy is a high-dose oxygen inhalation therapy that is achieved by having the patient breathe 100% oxygen in a pressurized chamber. This therapy promotes the development of new blood vessels and increased blood flow. Pancreatitis, snakebites, burns, skin grafts, wounds, smoke inhalation, osteomyelitis, fungal infections, and diffuse edema can benefit from hyperbaric oxygen therapy.

Diagnostic Equipment

Gait Analysis: we have both a force plate and a pressure sensitive walkway to determine the degree of lameness that your pet is experiencing. We also have a stance analyzer as well as infrared motion analysis to find abnormalities in gait. These tools along with the veterinarian’s evaluation help to diagnose subtle lameness and evaluate the success of treatments.

Diagnostic Ultrasound is frequently used to diagnose and assess the healing of soft tissue injuries in muscles or tendons. Ultrasound is usually performed under light sedation.

Magnetic Resonance Imagine (MRI) produces highly detailed images of the musculoskeletal system and can often give us information about soft tissues, such as muscles, ligaments, and tendons, that other imaging methods cannot reveal. MRI is performed under general anesthesia.

Computed tomography produces highly detailed 3D images of the musculoskeletal system that is not possible with X-rays. Due to the speed of our unit, we can acquire images using only short-acting sedation, rather than general anesthesia.

Nuclear scintigraphy helps identify where inflammation is located. Radioisotopes are injected into the bloodstream, and the emitted radiation is measured by specific detectors (gamma cameras). This can be useful to diagnose/locate lameness problems other diagnostics cannot detect.


Additional Services

  • Cart/wheelchair fittings
  • Orthotic/prosthetic fittings
  • Assistive devices (harnesses, booties, toe grips)
  • Gait evaluation equipment (force plate, Tekscan walkway, stance analyzer, infrared motion analysis)
  • Regenerative Medicine (stem cell and platelet-rich plasma)
  • Genetic testing (OFA and Pennhip testing)