When opportunity knocked a few years ago for Dr. Ron Hooley, medical director at VCA Woodland South Animal Hospital, he unwittingly answered. He hadn't intended to open an extensive canine physical rehabilitation facility at his practice in Tulsa, Okla., but when a diagnostic lab that occupied a third of the hospital moved to another location, the space flashed with possibilities.
A technician showed interest in creating a rehabilitation facility, and Dr. Hooley agreed. "We have a lot of animals with problems after surgery," he says. "So we do a blend of postsurgical rehabilitation, lameness evaluation, and treatment for muscle strain, soft tissue injuries, and chronic non-use problems."
The rehabilitation center sees Woodland South patients as well as referrals from other hospitals. Now in operation for almost two years, it practically markets itself. "From our lobby, you can look into our rehab area and see the water treadmill and watch the dogs," Dr. Hooley says. "So it puts it in clients' minds that rehab is normal. Then if we have a dog that's going to have an orthopedic procedure, it becomes the logical next step."
The endeavor to build the 300-square-foot facility was not as simple as Dr. Hooley initially imagined. "I thought, 'We'll get a water treadmill, we've got this space, we'll be good to go,'" he says. But in reality it took 120 hours of certification in rehab medicine at the Canine Rehabilitation Institute in Aspen, Colo., and his technician spent more than 100 hours in training to become certified.
Besides adding another dimension to the treatment options Woodland South offers, rehabilitation has also come to serve as an important diagnostic tool. The doctors are finding that those dogs that seem to be doing well—for example, after surgery to repair an ACL injury—may actually be experiencing problems. "When we measure leg diameter, we find that it's much smaller and they're not using the leg in a normal way, which causes stress on the other leg," Dr. Hooley says. "These soft tissue injuries are subtle, and it's hard to know what's really going on. Rehab helps us chase down the diagnosis."
As advice to other veterinarians thinking about adding rehabilitation services, Dr. Hooley stresses the importance of enlisting help to pioneer the project. "It really requires a whole team," he says. "It's going to take a veterinarian, a trained assistant, and occasionally ancillary staff to go with them." (To answer common client questions about rehab, use the client handout in Related Links below.)
One part of the gig that Dr. Hooley says he didn't expect is the rewards—specifically, the bonding that takes place. "With physical rehabilitation, you develop a closer relationship with the patient and the client," he says. "Lots of times when we finish a case, the client is disappointed because the dog liked it so much."