Physical therapy helps dogs at Veterinary Teaching Hospital

Maddy, a yellow Labrador retriever, came to the Veterinary Teaching Hospital in bad shape. The Animal Care Center of Salem referred Maddy to Blacksburg in early 2013 to treat a herniated disk in her neck. Previous surgery to repair Maddy’s injured spine was a success, but it left her with a neurologic deficit in her front legs. Her front paws actually folded downward.

Unable to walk, she rode a hospital gurney from her owner’s car into the teaching hospital. Maddy needed to learn to walk again, much like a person needs physical therapy after a surgery or injury.

Enter Flori Sforza, a veterinary technician and certified canine rehabilitation practitioner at the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine.


Flori Sforza works with a dog on an exercise ball. Flori Sforza, a veterinary technician and certified canine rehabilitation practitioner at the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine, helps Sunny with strength-training and balancing exercises. A former stray, Sunny was hit by a car and suffered a spinal fracture, broken pelvis, and multiple hind leg fractures.

“When I first saw Maddy, she couldn’t stand on her front legs,” Sforza said. “Now she not only stands on her front legs, but she can also walk without assistance. I saw her several times for rehabilitation treatments. She learned to walk again after treatments at the hospital and prescribed at-home exercises with the owners.”

In the teaching hospital’s rehabilitation room, Sforza works with equipment you might expect in a physical therapy center for people: mats, yoga balls, exercise equipment, balance boards, and a dry treadmill. She also takes her four-legged patients downstairs to an underwater treadmill, where they can re-learn to walk in an environment that puts less stress on their joints. Underwater treatment helps cases ranging from dogs that need gait patterning or strength training to overweight animals with underlying orthopedic disease, Sforza said.

Maddy, who is owned by Brent and Anchasa Lehr of Roanoke, Va., is one of many dogs to benefit from physical rehabilitation at the hospital.

Kim Picklap and Jason Zawitkowski of Blacksburg, Va., bring their 3-year-old black and tan coonhound, Boone, for treatment with Sforza every two weeks.

The couple adopted Boone, a stray hound who had been hit by a car, from the teaching hospital. “Our dog and Boone got along great, so we decided to keep him,” Picklap said.

Boone’s surgery left a plate in his left side and a screw in his right. Regular treatment on the underwater treadmill and his exercise routine at home improved his stride markedly, his owners said.

“With the buoyancy of the water, you can see how he can move his legs more freely than on land,” Sforza said. “This is better than swimming for most dogs that have rear limb problems.”

A growing specialty


Yellow Labrador Baxter walks during a 25-minute water treadmill therapy session with Flori Sforza. Yellow Labrador Baxter walks during a 25-minute water treadmill therapy session with Flori Sforza.

Sforza, who graduated from Virginia Tech with a bachelor’s degree in wildlife management in 2000, started working for the teaching hospital’s surgery ward more than a decade ago. While earning her veterinary technician license, she developed a passion for the orthopedic side of veterinary medicine and later discovered the Canine Rehabilitation Certificate Program at the University of Tennessee, one of two U.S. universities that offer the endorsement.

In 2011, Sforza completed coursework, an externship, case studies, and a practical and written examination. Now she sees two or three patients for rehabilitation daily.

“We see a wide variety of cases where the surgeon or clinician feels that the patient needs some extra help, ranging from routine post-op rehabilitation to more complex cases that may require long-term care,” she said. “About half of the cases deal with orthopedic issues, and the other half deal with neurological issues. Some have both.”

Physical rehabilitation offers many rewards because of the bonds that practitioners develop with both the dogs and their owners. “I have a chance to work with some of the dogs that need physical rehabilitation for weeks or months,” she said. “I not only get to know them, but also their owners.”

Although post-surgery physical therapy is common for people, it is a fairly new development for pets. Less than half of U.S. veterinary teaching hospitals offer the service. With more veterinarians seeing the long-term benefits of canine rehabilitation, it promises to become more mainstream. The Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine already has one faculty member in the rehabilitation service and another who will complete the certification by the end of 2013.

“My vision is for physical rehab to become a routine part of the care that we offer canine patients after a procedure, just like in human medicine,” Sforza said.

  • For more information on this topic, contact Michael Sutphin at 540-231-6716.

Video: Therapy in action

    canine physical therapy

Baxter's physical therapy routine includes work on yoga balls, balance boards, and the underwater treadmill. 

Sessions help hound learn to walk again

    Cecilia Elpi's hound Tommy Chicken learned to walk again at the Veterinary Teaching Hospital.

Four years ago, Cecilia Elpi of Blacksburg, Va., brought her hound, Tommy Chicken, to the Veterinary Teaching Hospital for multi-focal disc disease. Surgery was not an option, which meant Tommy could have needed a doggie-wheelchair for the rest of his life.

After eight months of weekly treatments with Flori Sforza, a veterinary technician at the teaching hospital, Tommy can walk again. Today, the hound has a Twitter account and a fan club on Facebook.

About underwater treadmills

    The underwater treadmill at the Veterinary Teaching Hospital keeps pressure off dogs’ joints while they walk.

The Veterinary Teaching Hospital acquired an underwater treadmill for a research project in 2005 and now uses it regularly for physical rehabilitation.

  • The treadmill removes the pressure on dogs’ joints and allows them to move more freely and through a fuller range of motion.
  • Changing the water level manipulates the therapeutic outcome. The water level provides more or less resistance, which can be strengthen targeted muscles and encourage better flexion of some joints.
  • Most dogs need two or three sessions in the underwater treadmill to become accustomed to the environment.
  • Because the water is between 80 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit, the treadmill also offers thermotherapy.

How to get started in pet physical therapy

The requirements for a canine physical rehab practitioner are the following:

  • Be a veterinarian, veterinary technician, physical therapist, occupational therapist, or student or assistant in one of these fields
  • Pass five courses that give an orientation to physical rehabilitation and teach modalities ranging from shock wave therapy to therapeutic ultrasound
  • Complete five case studies
  • Complete a 40-hour externship at an pre-approved facility
  • Pass a practical and written examination

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