There is a misconception that cats and physical rehabilitation are mutually exclusive, especially when considering hydrotherapy. Opening up the mind to the possibility that a cat will participate in such a program is the first step. The second step is creating a program which is applicable to the condition being treated, as well as being appropriate for a feline. The third and final step is to apply the program and re-evaluate, bearing in mind all the therapeutic goals that were set.
As in small animal private practice it is advisable to create a space, or set aside a consultation room, where the session will not be disturbed or interrupted with passing traffic. In the situation of restraint for cats, ‘less is often more.’ Therapists are also trained in feline behaviour to enable the session to be adjusted according to the cat’s stress level.
Cats are frequently treated for conditions which include osteoarthritis, trauma, femoral head and neck excision arthroplasty, neurological conditions and ligament injuries. Useful techniques to enhance tissue repair and maintain joint health are passive range of motion and massage. Hot and cold therapy may be applicable and photobiomodulation is tolerated extremely well, as is acupuncture. Many of these modalities are also useful to manage pain.
Therapeutic exercise is used very well in cats to strengthen muscles, improve flexibility, enhance balance and proprioception and also to increase stamina. The key to a successful program is to tap into the natural behaviour of cats which will include their hunting behaviour, and also their desire to play. Walking, climbing and stretching can all be encouraged by using a toy which stimulates the chase response. The toy is moved slowly to encourage controlled movements (as in stalking prey) as opposed to quick movements which will stimulate the need to jump. Jumping is usually not an appropriate movement in the early phase of a physical rehabilitation program. Using a spot of light to direct behaviour/movement is an option. By using the light appropriately a cat can be encouraged to place front paws on a small chair while standing on its rear legs thereby inducing hip extension. Walking cats over planks, narrow beams, cushions and other inflatable devices will encourage weight bearing, improve flexibility, balance and proprioception. Imagination is the only limiting factor when keeping cats focused and entertained. Flexibility exercises can include activities that encourage the cat to reach or stretch or to maneuver around or through obstacles. This trait allows cats to get through difficult spaces and affords some protection from injury. Most exercise programs designed for cats primarily consist of exercises performed on land, rather than in water.
Hydrotherapy is a very popular form of rehabilitation therapy for dogs and can be used with cats that will tolerate it. Cats that are frequently groomed (such as Persians) have less resistance to water based therapies. Environmental factors and signalment will largely determine which feline patients will be exposed to the pool or underwater treadmill. The successful use of this modality requires patience and a fine tuned awareness of your feline patient. The natural properties of water (e.g., density, buoyancy, resistance) make water-based exercise one of the most useful forms of rehabilitation therapy by reducing the concussive effects of active exercise and helping improve limb mobility, strength, and joint ROM.
Physical rehabilitation for cats is different to that for dogs but the basic therapeutic principles are the same. The plan for cats must be creative, fun and easy to follow. Each patient is regarded as an individual and cats will benefit from a rehabilitation program in the same way dogs do. The successful program will not only depend on the knowledge of the therapist but also on the ability of the therapist to understand feline patients and to adjust the program in a suitable manner.