Nine-year-old pit-bull mix Roo has the long, lean body of an endurance athlete. He’d regularly log three-mile runs with his owner, Karen Flor, and race her husband on his bike. (Sometimes Roo would even win—but only when he cheated by cutting across the lawn.)
So when a cancerous tumor deep in his hip required surgery to amputate his left hind leg in March, Roo struggled to stay sedentary during recovery. “He’s the kind of dog who just goes,” Flor said. “He can’t sit without getting blue.”
Recently, wearing a Superman cape and what sure looked like a grin, Roo showed no signs of a low mood. Fueled by peanut-butter snacks and supported by Flor and a team of veterinary rehab specialists, he deftly completed an obstacle course made up of bone-shaped foam balance pads, wobble boards, low hurdles, and a mini-trampoline.
The routine forms part of his three-day-a-week rehabilitation program, designed to strengthen his remaining hind leg, improve his balance, and help him master everyday challenges like the stairs in his Lincolnshire, Illinois, home.
Now, he has a brand-new pet physical therapy facility in which to do it. Veterinary Specialty Center, which offers everything from oncology to neurology to surgery to Chicagoland animals, opened an Athletic Center a block away from its Buffalo Grove, Illinois, headquarters.
Though the clinic already offered canine (and, less frequently, feline) rehab, the new space will allow specialists to treat more injured, aging, obese, and post-surgical pets, said rehabilitation director Lindsey Seilheimer, D.V.M. The new 8,600-square-foot facility boasts two underwater treadmills, a cavernous gym, and treatments like massage and laser therapy.
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Eventually, the center hopes to offer more preventive services, including fitness classes for animals and their owners. In the meantime, most patients have the same types of problems you’d encounter in a human physical therapy clinic. Working canines—including police and tracking dogs—come to quickly bounce back from injuries (some on-the-job, some not—one tore his cruciate ligament chasing a tennis ball, Seilheimer said).
But most patients who visited on opening day August 18 were pets. A 14-year-old Labrador named Coach tore his cruciate ligament on a walk this past April. Unlike his owner Laurie Hunken, who had her own ACL repaired about 25 years ago, Coach’s age and weakness in his other back leg make him a poor candidate for surgery.
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Thanks to the treadmill, laser, and other treatments, he’s walking around the block without apparent pain or limitation. “It’s been good for him, but mentally, it’s been great for me, too, knowing he’s living a good life,” Hunken said. At the center, she fed Coach Cheerios to distract him while he received treatment from massage therapist Val Nelson.
Nelson holds certifications in human and canine massage therapy, and said the species reap similar benefits: decreased tension, pain relief, and relaxation. She does have to adjust her areas of focus—while dogs put 70 percent of their weight on their front legs, their bipedal owners tend to carry more tightness in their core muscles. And of course, there’s the fur. “You don’t need any lubricant for that,” she said.
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In another room, seven-year-old Labrador-mix Max walks on a moving belt through chest-high water, clutching a favorite toy tightly in his mouth. Rehab technician Erica Seils stands over him in Crocs and waders, holding his short leash, while his owner Patty Strauss calls to him from outside the treadmill tank.
Max copes with arthritis that would likely improve if he lost a bit more weight. The treadmill sessions burn calories and build strength while reducing the impact on his joints and improving his gait. His twice-weekly underwater walks, along with prescribed diet tweaks, have already brought him down from more than 100 pounds to a significantly svelter 91.8, Seils said.
And then there’s Mayo, a dapple-coated mixed-breed with hip dysplasia and severe arthritis from a long-ago elbow fracture. After months of not being able to jump up on the furniture and taking stairs one at a time, the 12-year-old grew mopey. So her owner Lauren Kelliher brought her in for laser therapy, which uses heat waves to stimulate healing.
Two days after her first treatment, Mayo hopped up on the bed and dashed up half the stairs. “I’m happy, she’s happy,” said Kelliher, who lives in Buffalo Grove. “And it’s not as expensive as you’d think.”
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The center charges $40 for each 15 minutes of treatment, allowing clients to mix and match modalities at each session (so, a 30-minute massage and a 15-minute treadmill session—which includes a bath and blow-dry afterward at no extra cost—runs $120). Regular clients can buy packages that bring the prices down further.
For pet owners like Flor, the cost is more than worth it. Roo seems happier now than he was before surgery, can handle two mile-long run/walks a day, and even followed Flor downstairs into the basement last week. “I don’t think he even realizes he’s only got three legs, other than he gets more treats,” she said.