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Ohio State veterinary program works to help dogs back on their feet after trauma

Veterinary assistant Marcella Kimmick helps Moki, a 3-year-old French bulldog, use an underwater treadmill to help him regain strength in his back legs. Credit: Logan Hickman / Lantern photographer

Veterinary assistant Marcella Kimmick helps Moki, a 3-year-old French bulldog, use an underwater treadmill to help him regain strength in his back legs.
Credit: Logan Hickman / Lantern photographer

Meet Moki. He is your typical 3-year-old French bulldog: he loves people, he is high energy and, at times, he can be a little stubborn.

At least that’s how veterinary rehab technician, Heather Storey, said she would describe her white four-legged friend.

Storey works with Moki twice every week at the Ohio State Veterinary Medical Center’s canine rehabilitation program using therapy techniques to build Moki’s strength after he had surgery to repair a slipped disk that was pressing against his spinal cord and had paralyzed him.

Since his surgery, Moki’s owners requested that he complete rehabilitation at OSU to help him learn how to walk normally again.

The canine rehabilitation program is part of the Hospital for Companion Animals at the OSU Veterinary Medical Center and helps dogs regain their strength after experiencing trauma.

“Just like a person after a stroke or after a spinal cord injury would go to physical therapy, we provide that service for post-operative patients,” said Lillian Su, clinical assistant professor of small animal surgery and Moki’s doctor. “Both for neurological patients like Moki, as well as for orthopedic patients who are going through routine ACL repairs and those types of things.”

One of the techniques used to help Moki regain strength in his back legs is the use of an underwater treadmill, designed just for dogs.

“Essentially, it’s a tank with adjustable water levels and a treadmill on the bottom,” Su said. “We can fill the water depending on how much support we want to provide to them and it gives buoyancy to dogs who are paralyzed — it helps them to get up and walk if they are not strong enough to support their own body weight.”

In addition, the underwater treadmill helps Su and her team control the speed at which the dogs walk, in order to help strengthen specific weak areas.

“The underwater treadmill helps us to strengthen their limbs and the muscles because they are working against resistance, so it’s harder to walk on water than on land,” Su said. “We can also slow them down.

“Most dogs have four legs. A lot of times we consider them to have three legs with a spare, because most dogs who have a single-limb injury will tend to walk with one leg hiked up and run around on three. If you slow them down, especially after an injury, that’s more likely to get them to put their foot down in a controlled fashion and so with the treadmill, we can control the speed that they’re going and can influence how much they’re moving their joints depending on the height of the water that we set.”

Other techniques Su and her team use to help Moki include post-operative laser treatments to help reduce inflammation and pain as well as floor exercises to help improve his range of motion.

These floor exercises include guiding Moki over several sticks placed evenly apart on the floor, which encourage him to use all four of his legs when walking.

“So basically, we are using his back legs to do the motions for him so hopefully he can gain some muscle memory to get him going,” Storey said. “We also do balancing (techniques) with him to again, strengthen the back end.”

Veterinary assistant Marcella Kimmick is also part of Su’s canine rehab team and works with injured dogs like Moki using the underwater treadmill.

“It’s very fun,” Kimmick said. “It’s very neat to see them go from not walking to walking — it’s my dream job.”

With help from rehabilitation techniques like the underwater treadmill, Moki’s owners think he can walk much more comfortably.

“His owners feel like they’ve seen a really huge improvement in the last two months,” Su said. “When he first got to us, he was able to stand a little bit on his own but him standing at the very beginning was essentially him shifting all of his weight to his front legs and then using his spinal muscles to hike up his back end.”

Today, Moki’s overall comfort and posture has improved, Su said.

“When he’s standing, he’s more likely to stand with his weight more evenly distributed between his front and his hind legs,” Su said.

Despite his improvement, Su said Moki still has ways he can improve.

“My expectation is that he will continue to see us twice a week for the next four to eight weeks. The expectation with dogs with spinal cord injuries like Moki is that they get back to being a functional pet, but they may not get back to 100 percent normal because spinal cord injuries and nerve injuries are never predictable with their recovery pace,” Su said.

Still, Su said the chance to help dogs like Moki lead almost normal lives following trauma is gratifying.

“It’s really rewarding to be able to relieve pain for these patients, to improve their (post-operation) recovery,” she said. “It’s a fun area to be a part of.”

One comment

  1. The OSU Vet rehab program is fantastic. Heather who is Moki’s physical therapist is wonderful with Moki and she treats him like he was family. The staff members are very friendly and accommodating. I would recommend the rehab program to any dog needing extra strength training after back surgery. Moki went from not having any strength in his back legs to fully walking. He is about 85% back to normal and we are eagerly waiting for him to get to 100%.

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