Thursday, April 3, 2014

Physical Therapy Tip Of The Month: Ideas to Chew on - Can Physical Therapy Help with my Dog’s Digestive Problems?

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. 


Susan E. Davis (Sue) is a licensed Physical Therapist with over 30 years of practice in the human field, who transitioned into the animal world after taking courses at the UT Canine Rehabilitation program.  She is located in Red Bank, New Jersey.

She has been providing PT services to dogs and other animals through her entity Joycare Onsite, LLC in pet’s homes and in vet clinics since 2008.

She also provides pro bono services at the Monmouth County SPCA in Eatontown, NJ.  Sue is the proud “dog mommy” to Penelope, a miniature Dachshund with “attitude”.  For more information see her website , or follow on Twitter @animalPTsue.

Sue is also the author of a fantastic book on physical therapy, Physical Therapy And Rehabilitation For Animals: A Guide For The Consumer.  

Physical therapy can do so many great things for your dog. Understanding all the possibilities physical therapy can offer will change your dog's life. This book definitely belongs on the shelf of every dog lover.

Articles by Susan E. Davis:
Functional Strengthening Exercises: the What, Why and How
One Thing Leads To Another: Why The Second ACL Often Goes Too
Compensation: An Attempt To Restore Harmony
Paring Down to the Canine Core
Canine Massage: Every Dog ‘Kneads’ It”
Photon Power: Can Laser Therapy Help Your Dog?  
Physical Therapy in the Veterinary World  
Reiki: Is it real? 
Dog Lessons: Cooper  
The Essentials Of Canine Injury Prevention: 7 Tips For Keeping Your Dog Safer 
It's Not Just Walking, It's Therapy! 
Treatment And Prevention Of Canine Intervertebral Disc Disease (Part I)
Treatment And Prevention Of Canine Intervertebral Disc Disease (Part II Physical Therapy)
Range Of Motion: It’s A Matter Of Degree…
The Weight Of Water And How It Helps Dogs 
By Land or By Sea? A Comparison of Canine Treadmills 
Unraveling The Mystery Of Fascia And Myofascial Trigger Points (Part I)
Unraveling The Mystery Of Fascia And Myofascial Trigger Points (Part II) 
Scar Tissue: Is it Too Much of a Good Thing? 
Physical Therapy Tip Of The Month: Ramps! 
Physical Therapy Tip Of The Month: Indoor Duo Dog Exercises!  
Physical Therapy Tip Of The Month: Best Practices After Your Dog’s Surgery


  1. Thanks for sharing this. With Jack's IBD diagnosis I read as much as I can about methods to help him - particularly non-medicinal. I did have acupuncture for him once and if nothing else it mellows him out - which I'm sure helps his digestive tract.

    1. For Jasmine's IBD, other than metronidazole from time to time, we managed with a custom diet, supplements, herbal therapy and acupuncture. We did try IV stem cells once, because we were doing a treatment for something else as well. Once we started doing all these things, Jasmine had very little problems with it.