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Pet Physical Therapy Tip Of The Month: Can Physical Therapy Help with my Dog’s Digestive Problems?

Here’s the an intriguing topic as the next Pet Physical Tip of the Month from animal physical rehabilitator Susan Davis, PT of See Best Pet Physical Therapy Tip Of The Month: Can Physical Therapy Help with my Dog’s Digestive Problems? This article originally appeared on by Susan E. Davis, PT 

It’s all about guiding and empowering you to help your pet avoid injury, provide practical solutions and achieve rapid restoration of health and function!   

Pancreatitis, constipation, colitis and many other digestive disorders your dog might face in its lifetime are not commonly associated physical therapy treatments.

Certainly, your veterinarian is the first point of contact for help with these issues as they require evaluation by a primary care specialist for diagnosis, instruction on proper nutrition, medication and supplements.

Physical therapy is strictly secondary, adjunctive care for internal disorders, yet it can be an effective and often overlooked source of relief.  

You and your vet need to think out of the box (or stomach lining!) in order to include all possible remedies for these challenging conditions!

Here are a few ways in which PT (and related specialty fields) can be of help:

1. Massage: effleurage or stroking techniques with the palm and fingers along the longitudinal fibers of the abdominal muscles as well as in circular patterns over the belly can increase circulation, improve tone of the striated muscles and facilitate contraction of the smooth muscles in the digestive organs. These will aide peristalsis or movement in the bowel tract.

Other types of massage using transverse friction can be helpful to reduce abdominal adhesions after traumatic injury or abdominal surgery.

Myofascial release, another manual technique, helps undo deep restrictions the connective tissues surrounding digestive organs, often present with chronic inflammatory digestive issues.

2. Reiki: the skills of a Reiki practitioner can be very helpful in restoring balance and harmony within the body’s energy flow, particularly helping boost the immune system, much of which is located in the gut. Reiki can improve digestion, relieve constipation and reduce irritable bowels. 

3. Acupuncture: realizing that this is an article about PT, I would be remiss if I failed to mention the amazing benefits of acupuncture. A certified veterinary acupuncturist can help balance the yin and yang of the digestive organs, using points along linear pathways called meridians.

Twelve of the fourteen meridians in animals are associated with the stomach, spleen, liver, gall bladder and intestines, so it is apparent that this ancient technique has a role to play in aiding digestion. 

4. Electrical Stimulation: the use of “TENS” or Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation via flat electrodes placed in strategic locations by a therapist, offers pain relief and increased motility in the intestines. It may require shaving the dog’s belly and assisting the dog to lie still for 15-20 minutes. TENS units can also be used at home, but I recommend having your PT or Vet show you the exact placement of the electrodes and preset the waveform and pulse rate parameters before the first application. 

5. tPEMF: here is an exciting and relatively new modality that can be used at home, “targeted Pulsed Electromagnetic Field” therapy.  It is a not only a stand-alone treatment but also an adjunct to PT, Chiropractic, Acupuncture, etc.  It has shown to be effective with inflammatory conditions, and not just the usual orthopedic ones that first come to mind, but also with “somatic” organ conditions like colitis and pancreatitis. 

The electromagnetic field is delivered via coils, rings or loops and uses a shortwave frequency.  Through “induction” the field creates a cellular reaction in the body to help wound healing, improve vascular response, and increase tone of airways and smooth muscles (such as found in the intestines). 

Your veterinarian or therapist will advise you of any contraindications, and guide you on placement of the device, treatment doses, etc.
6. Exercise:  Two types of exercises can help your pet’s digestive issues: core strengthening and cardiovascular activity. 

Core exercises for the abdominal and pelvic muscles help to strengthen, tone and provide physical support for the internal organs. This is particularly relevant in animals such as dogs, being quadruped (on all four limbs) walkers, their internal organs positioned in parallel to the ground. For humans, who are bipedal upright walkers, internal organs are perpendicular to the ground.  To combat the downward pull of gravity, a human being needs good tone and control of their pelvic “floor” muscles (as with Kegal’s exercises where the sphincter muscles are tightened).

In a dog, the “floor” consists of their abs and these core muscles need to provide good support for the intestines and other digestive organs.

Core strengthening exercises also provide light mechanical compression of the bowels, which can be helpful with elimination. Core exercise should be performed two to three times per week. 

Point of caution: avoid using core exercises for digestive issues with deep chested, high cut dogs such as Boxers or Weimaraners, as excess abdominal compression might cause gastric twisting or bloat.

Cardiovascular exercises in the form of walking, running and swimming increases breathing and heart rate, which can help relieve constipation, release gas and stimulate normal digestion. It also stimulates your dog to drink water, which is essential to digestive health. 

Cardio should be performed daily, at low to moderate speed, for a length of time or distance that challenges your dog to mild fatigue, but does not cause exhaustion.  If cardiovascular health is your goal (as opposed to building muscle mass or speed), it is better to focus on longer duration and distance, even if that requires a slower pace.   Thank you for reading this article.  Your questions and comments are completely welcome (I’ll respond). Please feel free to communicate with me through Twitter (@PatrickMahaney) and follow my adventures in veterinary medicine by liking Patrick Mahaney: Veterinarian Acupuncture Pain Management for Your Pets on Facebook. Copyright of this article (2014) is owned by Dr Patrick Mahaney, Veterinarian and Certified Veterinary Acupuncturist. Republishing any portion of this article must first be authorized by Dr Patrick Mahaney. Requests for republishing must be approved by Dr Patrick Mahaney and received in written format. 
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