3 remarkable stories of veterinary rehab recovery

3 remarkable stories of veterinary rehab recovery

What do a pit bull suffering from fibrocartilaginous embolism, a Labrador retriever with chronic severe elbow dysplasia, and a beagle with ventral slot decompression have in common? These precious pooches are rehabilitation success stories that teach us to never give up hope.
May 01, 2013
By dvm360.com staff

In my years of working to help rehabilitate dogs, I've seen many amazing canines overcome seemingly insurmountable illnesses and injuries. The following rehabilitation success stories teach us that all pet owners need to understand their options to improve their pets' quality of life. Whether a pet is struggling with arthritis or just underwent surgery, there's always a need for physical rehabilitation. All three of these amazing pets have amazing owners who dedicated a lot more than just the cost of the rehabilitation.

Case No. 1: Lola Warren

Have you ever heard the eye-watering, cringe-worthy cry of an unhappy beagle? Imagine that, multiplied by 10. That's what Lola did every time we even looked at her. She was just 10 days post ventral slot decompression and very unhappy. And honestly, who could blame her? She couldn't sit, stand, walk or even shift positions from side to side. On top of that, her neck hurt and she was surrounded by new people who wanted to mess with her—or in my case, help her.

Her anticipation of pain seemed to stress her out the most, causing her cries. She even cried when her owner was around. Fortunately Lola's owner was receptive and understood that the cries weren't necessarily pain-related.

Creating a rehabilitation schedule with clients
We formulated a plan to move slowly and begin with some shoulder and neck massages and standing exercises. Her owner had a very busy home schedule, with two young boys and a husband who was out of town. We agreed that Lola's best option was to board with us for the week so we could work with her every couple hours throughout the day. (See "Sample script: Creating a rehabilitation schedule with clients".)

Photo 1: On her first day of rehab, Lola worked on learning to lie down and build her core.
Lola's lack of interest in moving her legs 10 days after surgery concerned everyone. If she didn't start using her legs, she would need an MRI to rule out a nerve sheath tumor. So we started to help Lola walk again.

Photo 2: Lola warms up under blankets after spending time in the underwater treadmill.
Every day we worked with her on the exercise equipment and in the water. She was not a huge fan of the peanut-shaped exercise balls, but they were so important in helping her regain her core strength and stability. We would use this piece of equipment by positioning Lola in lays, sits and stands on top of the ball. Doing this helped with joint awareness and worked her overall balance. For the first five days or so, she didn't show any signs of wanting to use her forelimbs and she couldn't figure out how to use her hindlimbs when we supported her with a vest for walking. She was very insecure, but after about a week of aggressive, yet gentle, daily rehabilitation, she started showing improvement. She was able to push herself up into a sit, and she even stopped screaming. Before we knew it, she was walking in the water and on land unassisted, and she was only a few weeks out from surgery. We were all ecstatic.

Photo 3: Team members propped Lola into more comfortable positions for her neck.
The owners were able to continue her home exercises and bring her in three times a week for a month, and she continued to get stronger and less ataxic with each visit. She was also about five to six pounds overweight when we started, so her owners committed to helping her lose weight. They took it seriously and understood that both in her current state and in the future getting Lola to a healthy weight was the best thing for her.

Photo 4: At two weeks post-op, Lola still needed assistance in the water.
After two months of pretty intense rehabilitation three times a week, we weaned her down to two times a week, then one time a week, and, finally, graduation. So within just three months, we took a dog that had a possible guarded prognosis to ever walk again to being able to run, jump and play. She even gained muscle mass and got a waistline in the process.

Photo 5: By three weeks post-op, Lola was walking without a vest and without assistance.
Lola is now living it up at home with zero pain. Her owner continues to update us on how well she's doing, stopping by for visits and sending pictures. Today, you'd never know she had surgery. She's a spunky beagle that likes to thrash her toys all around, slinging them from side to side. Neck surgery? What neck surgery?

Photo 6: "Before we knew it, she didn't even need the bumpers on the side to help keep her straight," says Jodi Beetem. "And she even looked thinner."
In every new-client appointment, we discuss home life and realistic goals to create a rehabilitation schedule. I usually give my owners the perfect world scenario—they don't work or have any other responsibility other than their pets—and then break it down from there. Each case I see has a different level of necessity when it comes to rehabilitation.

Photo 7: Lola relaxes in her favorite spot—the couch.
For example, would I like to see a dog that just underwent knee surgery three times a week for eight to 12 weeks? Sure. Is it realistic? Not for most owners. And this example might do fine with one to two visits a week, as long as the owner commits to daily home walks and so on. However, in Lola's case, and most other critical neurologic cases, she needed much more attention and care.

Not every owner is easy to work with. Many times we must comfort and reassure owners that we're not trying to hurt their pets and that we must get past that scared moment when their pets squirm or cry out for help. Usually once the owner relaxes, the patient does too. If you've ever had physical therapy yourself, you know that sometimes it hurts a little before it gets better.

Weight-loss conversations can be an important part of rehabilitation. Many times you can start the recommendation with a simple opener, like, "There are a number of good weight-loss foods for dogs. We can call your veterinarian to find out what she recommends and then come up with a plan for the proper amount of calories Jake should eat."

Lola's case showed me the importance of patience. Sure, it was frustrating when I was trying to help her and she screamed at me. But slowly over time, her screams turned to tail wags, and I was able to watch her run around the yard pain-free—and that was one of my favorite days in my career.