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Getting Patients Back on Their Paws

If you visited Carla Rodrigues, DVM, CCRP at work, you might see her helping a dog tackle an aquatic treadmill, or guiding a puppy through an obstacle course. It’s all part of the veterinary specialty she loves—rehabilitation practice.


Dr. Rodrigues is a rehab veterinarian at Affiliated Veterinary Specialists (AVS) in Orange Park, Florida, where she works with patients to enhance their quality of life and maximize their recovery from various conditions. Here, this 2013 RUSVM grad talks about what it’s like to specialize in rehab, how she fell in love with the field, and her Ross experience.

RUSVM: Can you describe your career path leading to your current role?

Dr. Rodrigues: Rehab is a fairly new and fast-growing field within veterinary medicine, and many people still don’t know that it exists. I was first introduced it during my clinical year at University of Minnesota. Rehab was the very first rotation I took, and I liked it so much that I took it again that same year. I loved what we could do for the patients and how much we could improve their lives.

After I graduated from RUSVM, I started general practice in California, but I kept rehab in the back of my mind. In my second year there, I pursued my Certificate in Canine Physical Rehabilitation from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. I moved to Charlotte in 2015, where I split time between general practice and rehab. But this past fall, I decided I wanted to commit myself to rehab completely and go full-time. That’s when I moved to Florida and joined AVS.
 

Inside Rehab

What types of patients might be candidates for rehab therapy?

We mostly see dogs, with the occasional cat. Some of the common cases we see are arthritis, neurological problems, fracture repairs, post-operative patients, general weakness, obesity, or congenital issues like hip dysplasia. Whether it’s helping a patient heal from an injury or a medical procedure, or helping a patient live a more active lifestyle, rehab can make such a difference in their lives.

What are some of the benefits and outcomes for pets who go through rehab?

It’s all about improving their quality of life. For post-operative patients, we can speed up their recovery. For the geriatric dogs who might have multifocal arthritis, we can give them comfort and bring their energy level up. For dogs who have grown accustomed to using only three legs instead of four, we can help them walk and get them using their fourth leg again. Whatever the case may be, we work towards getting them to function better and more efficiently.

In addition to the physical benefits, rehab also provides mental stimulation and socialization. We recently graduated a year-old dachshund who was tough to work with at the beginning—she wouldn’t stop barking, wouldn’t stay still, wouldn’t let me pet her. After two months of rehab, her behavior had improved so much that her owner commented on the difference. The reason is that rehab provides a good structure especially for the younger dogs. There’s a lot of treat-motivated work, they learn to listen and they’re rewarded. It’s good for the body and the mind. 

Can you describe some of the tools and therapies that you use?

One of the biggest tools I use is hydrotherapy, or aquatic treadmill therapy. Hydrotherapy is ideal for exercising patients who can’t yet bear their full weight as they recover, or for those who need a low-impact form of conditioning. Other therapies include cold laser therapy for pain and inflammation, therapeutic ultrasound for muscular strain or injury; neuromuscular electrical nerve stimulation for muscle weakness and atrophy [pictured]; magnetic bed; balance training, and land exercise, among others.

How do the dogs respond to rehab treatment?

Some have a little anxiety when they’re starting; some aren’t nervous at all. But most of them have sessions twice a week so it becomes a regular part of their lives. And even if they are anxious in the beginning, they enjoy it once they get to know the routine and feel better afterwards. Clients will tell us that their dogs look forward to coming to rehab, and I really do think they make the connection in their heads. They go to rehab, they feel so good afterwards and they know that it helps them.
 

Memorable Moments

[Dr. Rodrigues at St. Kitts with her rescue, Stella]

What’s one of your favorite things about rehab practice?

As a rehab vet, you’re able to spend so much time with the patients, and you form very special bonds with them. All rehab cases require at least several sessions. You don’t just see them for an annual checkup or a rabies shot; you see them twice a week for months. And the same goes for the owners. In general practice, you may spend 20 minutes with owners, but in rehab you get a one-hour consult.

It’s bittersweet for us when patients “graduate” from the program, or finish their treatment. It’s hard to say goodbye, because you’ve gotten to know the patients and their owners so well. But at the same time you’re happy that they’ve healed and they’ve gotten stronger.

Any memorable patient stories you’d like to share?

We had a severe neurological patient, a dog named Hope, that couldn’t walk and had spastic movement in her back legs [pictured]. We put her in a manual therapy course, and now she’s running around. You can tell her movement is a bit quirky—it’s not like other dogs’—but she has learned ways around her obstacle.

It’s really amazing to watch patients progress from day to day. They go from a standing position, to some movements in their hind legs, and eventually they’re jumping up and walking around. Their coordination improves, their limbs strengthen, they build their muscle memory and psychological memory. It’s a perfect example of what a huge difference you can make.
 

Where It All Started

Why did you choose RUSVM?

I first learned about Ross at an information seminar. I’ve always been a traveler, and I wanted to live in a different country. The school’s reputation, the curriculum and the accelerated program all attracted me as well. It just seemed like the way to go. And I loved it—everything from living in St. Kitts to my professors. I’m proud to be a Ross graduate. It will always be a part of me.

Any advice for RUSVM students?

Don’t be afraid of reaching out to people and finding mentors. No matter how long you’ve been practicing, always be willing to grow and learn more from the people around you.

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