If your initial response is an immediate “no” then keep reading because I may change your mind!

When I mention canine physiotherapy to people I often see their eyes glaze over, or a look of confusion appear on their face. I mean how on earth do you get a dog to do physiotherapy and why would it ever help them?

Well you would be surprised how many dogs out there actually really need it and would benefit from it. The problem is that, because it is so misunderstood, it constantly gets overlooked as a viable treatment for dogs. In addition to that, lameness and musculoskeletal conditions in dogs often go undiscovered until there are very obvious and visible signs of pain. Both vets and owners alike can struggle with the idea that many dogs are coping with various levels of disability without it ever being noticed. I mean surely you would see it if a dog was lame – right? Or surely it would be picked up at the annual vet check?

Wrong! Many dogs have a subtle lameness that is invisible to the untrained eye in most situations. They appear very active and even extremely fit and healthy from the outside. They don’t hold a limb up or fall over and they don’t cry out in pain. They will chase a ball all day and seem to never be tired. They may even compete in sports and win! However this doesn’t mean they have no pain or difficulty. They also can be missed at the vet health check. A 10 minute vaccination appointment is not adequate to see subtle lameness. In fact, even half an hour in a standard vet consulting room can also reveal nothing. The dog is in a state of high arousal, the room is small, they might be scared. All these things mean you struggle to ‘see’ the signs in that environment.

So what are the signs?

The vast majority of my behaviour cases over the last couple of years have had pain as a cause or contributing factor without anyone realising, despite annual vet health checks. Now you might be thinking that your dog does not have a behavioural problem and isn’t limping and therefore they have no need of physio. Hopefully that is true, but my experience tells me there is every chance it isn’t, because the behavioural signs can be misinterpreted. Let me explain.

“He has always been like that” is an expression I hear over and over again from an owner, when I broach the subject of their dog’s behaviour being a clue to a deeper physical problem. For example, the dog that has always barked hysterically when it is playing. Its just having fun – right? Well maybe not. It may be that, via that very behaviour, the dog is displaying signs of not coping due to a physical problem. From the owners perspective it is just something the dog has “always done” and is just “who he is”.

What is very possible is that the dog has “always been like that” because, for example, they have ‘always’ had a luxating patella (kneecap), or mild hip dysplasia, or arthritic joints. They bark hysterically when they play because they are in pain and/or feel unbalanced or unsafe. It doesn’t necessarily mean they would refuse to play. If they are very driven to pursue a behaviour they will often work through a great amount of discomfort to do so. They will also work very hard to please us when we ask them to do something, despite their own discomfort, and this is why it is possible to not ‘see’ considerable pain suffered by them, because they don’t react like we would.

Eight year old male collie cross

At around 8 years of age Jake was stuck in a rescue centre because he had been repeatedly returned, due to behaviour problems. He would guard the stairs at the top and guard the sofa. He would be unpredictable and could snap for seemingly no reason. Yet he was friendly, in that he seemed to like people, as long as they were in his space on his terms. He also loved to play with a football and could certainly run – fast!

So often dogs like Jake are labelled as ‘nasty’, ‘aggressive’, ‘grumpy’ or ‘dominant’. It is assumed they are purposefully exhibiting these behaviours because they are trying to ‘control’ people or their environment and in a way that is true, but the motivation is not what people assume. They are trying to control things, but not in a domineering or belligerent way. They are trying to control the people and things around them to protect themselves, so they don’t get hurt or feel unsafe. When they growl they are trying to convey their level of concern and worry to you about the situation they are currently in. How else could they tell you they don’t want you to do something they fear?

I was fairly certain as soon as I heard about Jake that he had a pain issue and my advice was to check for physical problems. After x-rays it became apparent that his hips were in shockingly bad shape, especially his right one. It was no wonder he had been ‘misbehaving’ and amazing how active he was. So how was that missed when it was so advanced as a physical problem?

It’s actually really understandable.

Dogs are truly amazing creatures when it comes to compensating for a pain issue. Often you only clearly see the clinical signs of lameness when they have been struggling for a while. They have four legs and so, unlike us, they can shift their weight and movement to the ‘good’ legs and keep going fairly well. Sometimes for many years! Jake had likely had the problem from being a very young dog, so really you have to applaud the fact that he never did anyone serious harm and was so eager to get up and go every day.

He had been guarding the top of the stairs probably because he had been told to go down them by the previous owner. Going down stairs would be painful for him and made worse by the fact that his previous owner might have got frustrated with him ‘not obeying’ the command to go down them because he was being ‘stubborn’. Then he is forced into a painful situation with an angry human close behind him hurrying him up!

He was guarding the sofa for the same reason. When he was told to get off immediately it meant getting to his feet and jumping down. Again, this would be painful and with the angry human assuming he was stubbornly refusing, and getting more and more insistent, it was a doubly uncomfortable situation.

He growled and was unpredictable because, depending on how bad the pain in his hips was that day, he would be less willing to have his hips or back roughly stroked in play or affection because it hurt. That didn’t mean he didn’t like the person trying to be affectionate with him. You may love your partner but if you have a severe migraine and they playfully ruffle your hair or ask you to get up and help them with something, you are likely to not be very friendly if you refuse and they insist you do it and try to pull you out of the chair!

Jake now lives with me because I understand him and as a physio and behaviourist I can see when he has a good day or bad day. He still gets a lot out of life and his pain is carefully managed now, as is his exercise. To see him doing the zoomies around the garden most people wouldn’t be aware he has any issues, (and its not something I encourage him to do, given his problems!). However, there are other more subtle signs if you know what to look for.

So, how as a physio have I helped Jake?

His pain is managed. I know his signs of fatigue so don’t let him over-do it. I have removed exercise that worsens his condition and replaced it with enjoyable alternatives. His weight is managed. He is on a very good quality, non-processed diet. I include certain things in his everyday life that improve his balance and the way he uses his limbs. His bed is a suitable one in a suitable place and I address the secondary signs of compensation in various places on his body if and when he allows it. This last part is the part where physiotherapy can make all the difference as it is often not the offending injury site that causes the most pain but the part they are now using more instead. For Jake that is his front limbs and shoulders and neck.

Most importantly, I appreciate he will have bad days, that he has a level of distrust and worry about some things and in those situations I let him be and allow him to decide how he wants to go about something. I also give him time to do it.

After reading this you may now be wondering if your dog has a problem but still don’t really see how physio can help them. It’s a much larger subject than most people think, with more possibilities for your dog than you ever imagined. It’s much more than just repeating endless exercises, stretches and massage. Physiotherapy treatment is now very sophisticated with up to date techniques that you and your dog can actually enjoy. In fact, your dog should always leave in better shape than they came in, whether they have a problem or not. I would say every dog could benefit from an annual physio assessment as they age, or even before, to catch problems early and prevent them from completely falling down one day when they have run out of good legs to hide it from you!

What next?

Do you now feel your dog may have a problem and don’t know what to do next? Contact a veterinary physiotherapist for help and ask them about an assessment for your dog. This will require a referral from your vet to give them permission and they will relay their discoveries back to your vet so they can decide how to help you. We are good at spotting even the smallest clues (especially if we are also TTouch trained) and helping your dog without stressing them out.

Julie Moss

Julie is a canine behaviourist, veterinary physiotherapist and TTouch Practitioner. She started Best Behaviour in 2005, which has since become part of her new venture, Canine Mind and Body Balance. She has a special interest in integrative veterinary care, where CAM therapies play an important role in truly holistic animal care. Her passion is working with older animals to give them back the best quality of life possible and she is committed to education and enabling people to recognise early signs of lameness in our dogs.