How to keep your dog mobile and arthritis and injury free
- Laurie McCauley‘s Journey from veterinary medicine to rehabilitation
- Navigating the skepticism of acupuncture and chiropractic care
- The ripple effect. ‘Empowering people, Optimizing pets’
- The most pressing challenge about mobility and arthritis due to aging
- The most overlooked factor in preventing arthritis in dogs
- Detecting early signs of arthritis and inflammation
- Treatments for joint inflammation
- Preparing mentally and emotionally for mobility challenges through exercise
- Behavioural and physical signs of aging
- House and car modifications for aging dogs
- Mistakes when exercising dogs
- Cold climate exercising solutions
- Dr Laurie McCauley’s book “The Top 5 Exercises for Your Geriatric Dog”
- Course information “Core & More: Foundational Exercises for Your Dog”
- A Vision for the future of dog health, mobility, aging and veterinary rehabilitation
How physical therapy exercises can help prevent injuries in your dog
This article likely caught your eye because you understand how difficult it is to see our dogs injured or their mobility decline as they age.
It is hard to witness our dogs getting older and less mobile, but it also feels great to see that there are ways to help our beloved dogs age slower, move better, and remain free from inflammation and pain for longer.
Today, I am bringing you a very interesting and inspiring interview with Dr. Laurie McCauley, who is a true trailblazer and pioneer in the field of veterinary rehabilitation, injury treatment, and prevention.
Dr. Laurie opened the first veterinary rehabilitation clinic in 1998, where she designed the first underwater treadmill for dogs, a piece of equipment that has improved the mobility and quality of life for millions of dogs globally. Dr. McCauley is also the founder of Optimum Pet Vitality, an online learning platform that empowers dog guardians around the world to help their dogs live long, healthy, and injury-free lives.
The following blog presents the key insights from my interview with Dr. Laurie McCauley. If you want to listen to our full discussion on how to exercise your dog, maintain mobility, prevent injuries and address age-related issues like arthritis, back pain and progressive weakness, you can watch the full interview below.
Uncovering the benefits of physical therapy for dogs in improving mobility and preventing injuries and arthritis
Dr. Peter Dobias: Your journey of going through veterinary school and then deciding to pioneer veterinary rehabilitation is captivating. Was there a defining moment that shifted your focus to rehabilitation?
Dr. Laurie McCauley: I was in general medicine for six years, and I hate to say it, but I got bored — another cat with diarrhea, another dog that’s vomiting, anal glands, spays, neuters, all that stuff. I did what I did. I loved it and loved my patients.
One day, I fell down the stairs at three in the morning, taking my dogs out, and hurt my back. I went to my chiropractor, and he couldn’t fix me. So I went to an orthopedic doctor, who sent me to a physical therapist and I discovered that you could get rid of pain and prevent further injuries by getting stronger. It dawned on me that I could use the same approach with my patients.
Unfortunately, there were no courses available but just around that time I was asked to help some police dogs that had mobility issues. So, I called up Robert Taylor, who used to be on the TV show Emergency Vets, because I knew he had a PT on staff and I asked if I could come to work with him to do some research together.
Soon after, I designed the first underwater treadmill by looking at dogs to create a low-impact exercise option. I called the zoo and asked what kind of glass they used in their aquariums because I needed that for my pool. I hooked up a home security system, so I had a camera and a monitor hanging from the ceiling to watch their gait as they were in the water.
I also studied acupuncture and chiropractic, and also build a 4,000-square-foot facility where all we did was rehab. We had four full-time veterinarians and four full-time technicians..
When I brought the information about the underwater treadmill to the first international sports medicine and rehab symposium, I was immediately asked to teach the certification course.
When I started teaching for the Canine Rehab Institute and it was amazing to work students from 17 different countries. I learned from every single one of them.
Dr. Peter Dobias: You are an acupuncturist and also a chiropractor. I know that some colleagues and clients are skeptical about these disciplines. How did you navigate the perceptions of those thinking that what you’re doing is not important or necessary or it doesn’t work?
Dr. Laurie McCauley: Yes, I am certified in acupuncture and get really good results. I can feel where the energy is stagnant or deficient and move it.
I’m also certified in chiropractic which gives me legitimacy, but again, a lot of knowledge has come to me intuitively. I do sacral occipital technique, craniosacral, myofascial work, listening, Bowen, osteopathy and ANTs (animal normalization techniques). I use a tuning fork to release the fascia.
So many things go into that, but you can’t say all that to a client. You can say I’m going to do chiropractic — it’s not exactly what you expect; it’s manual therapy and manipulation, and we’re going to get amazing results. When they see amazing results, they don’t care what it’s called.
Dr. Peter Dobias: A few years ago, you were recognized as the Holistic Practitioner of the Year by the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association, which speaks to your impact on our profession. How does such recognition shape or influence your work?
Dr. Laurie McCauley: To me, it’s not about an award. It’s about what I can learn to help fix the dog, what I can learn to help the dog and then help others help dogs. My big thing is the ripple effect. Literally, my tagline is ‘Empowering people, Optimizing pets.’
I want to help people help pets because if I work one day, I can help ten dogs. If I can teach ten people to do what I do, that’s a hundred dogs a day. The fact that I have lectured to thousands, or maybe a hundred thousand by this time, is so heartwarming.
I was just at an ACVSMR meeting. I’m board-certified in sports medicine and rehabilitation, and we just had our first meeting, which was great. I had somebody who was an intern from Poland 20-something years ago come to me and say, ‘Oh my God, Laura, you changed my life!’
When I hear that, to me, it’s not I did anything; it’s that my influence is now helping dogs in Poland. I think it’s cool that I have dogs in Taiwan, Korea, and China and all these places that are getting help because of something small I did so long ago. It’s such a blessing.
A regular exercise program can reduce the risk of arthritis and joint inflammation in aging dogs and increase their lifespan and quality of life
Dr. Peter Dobias: With the aging dog population and increasing concerns about mobility and arthritis, what do you see as the most pressing challenge and how does your work address it?
Dr. Laurie McCauley: So the typical thing we see in people is my dog is getting older. They’re lying around more, they’re less active, they atrophy, or their muscles get smaller and weaker, and their joints are more unstable, so they hurt more. If they’re less active, it spirals down until Fluffy can’t get up anymore, and you have to say goodbye.
I have been so blessed to be able to take the downward spiral and turn it upside down. Getting rid of the pain and then strengthening with both endurance and targeted exercises takes that spiral and spirals it up.
Although I work with a lot of geriatric dogs and have to say goodbye at some point, I received many calls and letters from people saying: “Laurie, you gave me two more years with my dog!” It’s so heartwarming.
I have some clients that come in, and their dog is very weak and frail. I tell them to get up and go to the mailbox five times a day. Set up a timer on your phone so you know you’re going to get up at these times. You may just walk around the house. You may go outside and walk around the outside of the house.
You’re going to slowly build your dog up inside their comfort zone so they don’t get hurt. Yet that’s working on their muscles, tendons, ligaments, and brain. I think exercise and diet are so important for all of our patients.
Dr. Peter Dobias: What do you think is the most overlooked factor in preventing arthritis in dogs?
Dr. Laurie McCauley: The first thing would be being overweight. We know now that white fat makes leptin and other chemicals that can create inflammation. Our scale of dogs that were lean to overweight was a one to five, and they had to make it a one to nine because what we see as normal today was obese 20 or 30 years ago.
I have clients who are like, ‘Laurie, my vet is telling me that my dog is too skinny.’ I’m like, no, they’re an athlete, they’re lean. They’re going to live longer and have fewer metabolic issues, allergy issues and all kinds of other things because they don’t have that inflammation.
The other thing would be exercise, which is so important for both the brain and the body and longevity.
Addressing joint inflammation and doing targeted exercises are essential for preventing cruciate ligament injuries in dogs
Dr. Peter Dobias: Can you give me a story where you’ve been able to detect early signs of arthritis and inflammation and it truly changed the dog’s life?
Dr. Laurie McCauley: 80% of orthopedic surgeries in dogs are for cruciate injuries. When I graduated veterinary school in ‘92, we saw maybe one cruciate injury a month in a six-doctor practice. The same practice sees multiple a day now.
Dogs used to jump to catch a frisbee and come down wrong and tear their cruciate. Now they’re running across the yard, they scream, and they lift up a leg. We know it’s not from trauma; it’s from gradual inflammation and degeneration.
The cruciate ligaments are inside the knee, and inflammation causes the little tendrils to tear. A dog can’t even feel that until enough of those tendrils pop.
I’ve come up with a simple way to find it to prevent this from happening. If I traction the joint, I’m not going to find anything but if I compress the joint and then put it in motion and there’s grinding, I know there is a problem and the joint fluid has thinned.
Thick, healthy joint fluid is like motor oil; it smooths everything. When it thins, it allows that cartilage to grind, which creates trauma and inflammation, which can lead to a cruciate injury.
Even pet parents could do this. Put the palm of your hand against the patella and bend and extend, straighten and bend, and if you feel any kind of grinding, there’s inflammation.
In such cases, we need to get them on a joint and mobility support, a chrondroprotectant, the right supplements, Omega-3s, and a supplement with glucosamine or perna mussles, and boswellia so we can stop the degenerative process, rebuild cartilage and strengthen ligaments and prevent tears.
Dr. Peter Dobias: What do we do when we recognize joint inflammation? What do you do on the physical therapy level?
Dr. Laurie McCauley: My rule of thumb is if I find inflammation or if I feel that grind, we make sure the dog’s on a chondroprotectant, a cartilage protector. If that’s not enough, if 12 weeks later, it’s not all better, then we put them on a polysulfated glycosaminoglycan (Adequan).
Note: GAG’s (glycosaminoglycans) are represented in Perna Mussel (Green Lipped Mussel)
If that doesn’t make them better, then we start a laser program, something we know is going to decrease inflammation and at the same time, we start exercises.
The job of the cruciate is to resist sheer and rotation forces. So if we can strengthen everything to help decrease the sheer force and the rotation, we’re helping the cruciate ligament to heal in a safe, well lubricated environment rather than continue to be in an environment that is putting pressure on it. So, simple exercises can help stabilize it tremendously.
Something so simple that anybody can do is pick up one leg when your dog is standing up, so they have to stabilize on the other three legs. Then put that one down and pick up the next one, and then you pick up the front one, and then you pick up the other one, and you go around a couple of times.
This strengthens all the muscles without sheer rotation or compression force. You can do that with a 16-week-old puppy or a 16 or 18-year-old dog, and it will help them.
Exercise can help aging dogs improve mobility, reduce overall muscle loss and support healthy brain function
Dr. Peter Dobias: How can dog lovers best prepare mentally and emotionally for the mobility challenges their dogs may face?
Dr. Laurie McCauley: Exercise. Studies in mice show that when mice are in a box, in their little cage, versus in an enriched environment where they have things to do, they live longer.
They did a study where they took older mice for 45 days and put them in an enriched environment, and the size of their hippocampus, the memory and learning centre, increased by 15% by over 40,000 more neurons.
When these mice had a wheel where they could walk and do things, their hippocampus was five times bigger than the mice in a box.
Exercises like walking and swimming increased the number of neurons in their brain, and learning things and targeted exercise, increased the life expectancy of each neuron.
Besides what happens in the brain, we know that as we age, we lose type II muscle fibres just by getting older, but we lose type I muscles by inactivity. Type I is your posture and your endurance.
We lose type II muscle fibres just from getting older, but we can increase our type I muscle fibres because that’s not affected by age. Also, if you use your type I muscle fibres like type II, they can transform into type II, or vice versa. By doing our endurance work and targeted exercises, we’re strengthening everything so that we’re more stable and lose muscle more slowly.
Everyone has sarcopenia, where the muscle gets smaller as we age. The lost muscle gets replaced by fat, so we don’t see a change in circumference, but change in strength.
There are studies that show that if you start exercising when you’re younger, you can maintain strength much longer than if you start when you’re older.
So, although I have exercises that are great for older dogs, I recommend them for puppies. Let’s get them strong now so they have more muscle. If you’re going to lose 25% of 25 versus 25% of a hundred, you’re much better if you start with a hundred.
Dr. Peter Dobias: Are there any subtle behavioural or physical signs that most pet parents miss when it comes to aging?
Dr. Laurie McCauley: There’s always the cognitive dysfunction, with symptoms like increased anxiety, not sleeping as well, more pacing, more vocalizing, decreased activity and apathy. It can progress to going to the wrong side of the door or not recognizing people.
I have a Boxer Mastiff mix that can literally put his front feet up on a ball and walk it 40 feet and then 40 feet back. He can sit up and do high fives. People say I have an almost 14-year-old dog who’s a 95-pound dog, which is almost unheard of. It’s because when we find things, we fix them. So it’s looking for things and strengthening to help their brain and body function better.|
Dr. Peter Dobias: What house modification do you recommend when dogs start aging or when it comes to car travel?
Dr. Laurie McCauley: Stairs going up onto the bed. Some of my clients take their beds off the stand, so it’s just their mattress or the box spring and mattress so the dogs can still get in the bed.
If you need to, use a ramp outside; you can have a ramp going into your car to help them get into the car. There’s a product called a Help ‘Em Up, which is a front harness and a back harness that connects and has a handle on each so that if you need to help, you’ve got that.
There are things that, if they’re sliding, you can spray on their feet, like Show Foo or PawFriction. There are also socks, so they’re not sliding. Instead of doing that, you can do that to get them through it, but you can also do something as simple as side steps because most older dogs fall with either their front or back out to the side.
So rather than just putting something grippy on their feet, if you strengthen the muscles that hold their legs in, they don’t have that problem.
Staying committed to an exercise routine is as important as integrating warming up and cooling down activities when it comes to reducing the risk of injuries in dogs
Dr. Peter Dobias: Have you noticed any misconceptions or mistakes people are making when it comes to exercise?
Dr. Laurie McCauley: One of the mistakes people make is what I call the ‘weekend warrior syndrome’ — I work all day, I come home, my dog’s there, I ignore him, I feed him, he goes out, and that’s it. Then the weekend comes, and we’re going to run a marathon. If the dog is not getting any exercise all week, and then on the weekends, you’re pushing him, he’s much more likely to get injured. So it’s much better to have a little bit of exercise.
My recommendation is to walk your dog for at least 25 minutes five days a week, and that can include the weekend. There are lots of studies that show that kind of weekend warrior syndrome significantly increases injuries.
The other thing is to warm up and cool down. A muscle is much less likely to get injured if it’s warmed up, so the blood flow is brought in, the fat, the things that it needs to be able to lengthen and contract. A muscle’s ability to work increases as that blood flow increases.
Spending even two to five minutes before something strenuous and then two to five minutes at the end to get rid of the pyruvate is important. Humans build lactic acid, and dogs build pyruvate, a different chemical, but it still can increase the chance of injury.
Having the warm-up and that cool-down period is huge. If you think about an athlete, they’re always going to warm up before they push to the limit, so their muscles aren’t cold, and they’re not as likely to get injured.
Dr. Peter Dobias: What do you recommend to people who have dogs and live in colder climates, and their dogs don’t get out as often?
Dr. Laurie McCauley: Just like in humans, if you want to do your endurance exercises, there are places where you can go swimming and also places where you have an in-house treadmill. Some of my clients will have that to run their dogs in the winter.
Then, you have targeted exercises that work the brain and the body all throughout the winter. You don’t need a lot of space to be able to have a great exercise program. You don’t need a lot of expensive equipment either.
I tell people to take the couch cushion off the couch and have their dog spin and twirl on the couch cushion. This exercise helps them work on their proprioception, like where are my feet so I’m not stepping off, and then I’m spinning my body, and I’m using all the muscles in my whole spine, and I have to work on my balance. There are all kinds of things you can do in your house, even without a gym.
I believe that we’re going to see more and more dog gyms as we see more and more people treating their pets as their kids. They are going to take better care of their pets and hopefully take better care of themselves.
Physical therapy exercises, dog daycare, supplements and at-home laser therapy will help pet parents strengthen their dogs’ bodies and prevent aging-related mobility issues
Dr. Peter Dobias: Your eBook, “The Top 5 Exercises for Your Geriatric Dog,” is a resource many pet owners have found invaluable. Where can people find it, and what is it about?
Dr. Laurie McCauley: People can text us at (+1 for those outside the US) 866-949-0068, with the word ‘ebook,’ no space. Then it will ask for your email address, and then we send it to your email box. The eBook is a 25-26 page book that goes through things to look for, five exercises, how to do them, and some different options.
Dr. Peter Dobias: You also have an exercise course for dogs, what’s that about?
Dr. Laurie McCauley: I do. So remember I said I have my dog, Sted, who is amazing. When I got him, he was 11 months old, and I said, you have straight knees, so that’s a cruciate risk; you have a long back, so that’s a back injury risk. He has straight shoulders. He runs like the wind; so that predisposes him to iliopsoas injury. I am in love with my dog, but not with way he is put together.
The number one injury is shoulder injuries in active dogs. I knew I needed to do something so I started doing exercises early, and also shared them with people.
We did an ultimate exercise challenge with one of my clients who’s in Chicago. I said, I’m going to show you, I’m going to take videos, and you’re going to do those exercises with Sophia; who was an agility dog. She was 10 when she started. At 11 and a half, she was the seventh fastest in Bad Dog Agility. Everyone else was like four or five years old!
That’s when I realized we needed to teach more people how to do this, so we put together Core & More: Foundational Exercises for Your Dog. This course has everything to help stabilize the joint, strengthen muscles, increase balance and proprioception, and stimulate the brain. The exercises are safe for a 16-week-old puppy or a 16-year-old dog.
The course is a progression, so you can’t start at the hardest exercise and hurt your dog. You learn the basics first — what warm-up and cool-down are, what overheating looks like, what their posture and stance and walk should look like.
I put my heart into all my courses, it’s everything you need to know to set you up for success. Every two weeks, you get four exercises, and you can take your dog through the progression so that they can get stronger and stronger.
Even with athletes, it’s not just in this exercise you’re going to do sit to stands. If this is easy, here’s how to make it harder, when to stop, if there’s a problem, we need to go to the vet, or if this is too hard or very easy for you, how we progress. So, I have start points and stop points.
Dr. Peter Dobias: What is your vision for the future when it comes to dog health, mobility, aging, and veterinary rehabilitation?
Dr. Laurie McCauley: 30 years ago, doggie daycare was used to board your dog if you go out of town and he’s in a cage for two weeks. Now, I go to work so my dog can go to doggie daycare and get to play with other dogs. That’s big. I foresee that becoming bigger; just like you take your kids to school, you take your dog to places where they can have enrichment.
One of the things I’m working on right now is putting together a laser course for pet parents because I foresee that many of them will be able to do that at home. Laser is huge, and it’s an amazing tool if you know how to do it. 70% of my clients have their own laser. When they got it, they had no clue what to do with it. They’re willing to spend the money but don’t have the means to learn how to use it, even if they know it’s a good tool.
Anything we can do to help pets at home and decrease the wait time to get to the vet is beneficial. I foresee people taking better care of their dogs, understanding more about nutrition, and giving supplements in the same way they would do the right things for their children.
Many thanks to Dr. Laurie McCauley for her invaluable insights and actionable tips on how to exercise your dog and what you can do to prevent injuries, and I hope our discussion will help you create a healthy, long, and active life for your beloved dog. If you’re interested in reading more about the courses Dr. McCauley offers on her website, you can go to optimumpetvitality.com.
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