Veterinary Specialists Help Furry Patients Get Back on their Paws

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The Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation Service treats dogs—and some other critters—from around the Northeast and beyond

By Beth Saulnier

A dog in a water tank
Nikki in the treadmill tank. (Photo provided)

Nikki Caterson will work for Cheerios. It’s a good thing, too—because the toddler-friendly cereal bits are powering Nikki’s rehab treatment.

It’s a Thursday morning in mid-January, and the 13-year-old mixed-breed dog is at the College of Veterinary Medicine’s Companion Animal Hospital for a session of hydrotherapy.

As veterinary technician Olivia Peck tempts her forward with the little circular treats, the sweet-tempered, gray-muzzled canine is gamely plodding along on a special treadmill housed inside a water tank.

The buoyancy makes walking easier, while the added resistance helps her build up strength. “She did really well today,” Peck says later, as Nikki is being gently toweled off. “She’ll usually let me know when she’s tired, and I'll shorten her last interval—but she wasn’t showing any of the signs, so I had her go the extra two minutes.”

Nikki has been patient at CVM’s Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation Service since summer 2015—when her owner, computer security specialist Catherine Caterson, woke up one morning to find her beloved pet’s back limbs paralyzed, the result of spinal degeneration that had led to three ruptured discs.

After consulting her local vet, she brought Nikki from their home in Pennsylvania to Cornell for surgery; by the time they arrived in Ithaca, Caterson says, the dog had lost the ability to feel what’s known as “deep pain,” a measure that helps doctors assess the potential for recovery.

“Those dogs have about a 20% chance of walking again,” Caterson observes. “So the fact that Sports Med was able to get her functional is a slight miracle.”

Founded in 2013, the service is one of the few places in the U.S. where animals—overwhelmingly dogs, but also cats, horses, cows, goats, the occasional chicken, and even a hawk—receive state-of-the-art rehabilitative care for orthopedic injuries, neurological conditions, and pain management.

Located in a long rectangular space on the first floor of the vet hospital, it offers a host of treatments and interventions—acupuncture, acoustic shockwave therapy (an FDA-approved method that promotes healing), custom-made braces and orthotics, doses of platelet-rich plasma (commonly used in human athletes, it accelerates recovery and decreases inflammation), and more.

While the service provides cutting-edge treatment to its growing patient population—what started with just a handful of appointments in its first year rose to more than 1,600 in 2021—its equipment gives the space something of an air of a canine rec room.

A man and a woman observe a dog in a hydrotherapy tank
Peck (left) and Professor Joe Wakshlag, DVM ’98, PhD ’05, conduct a hydrotherapy session. (Photo by Jason Koski/Cornell University)

In addition to the frequently used water treadmill, there are piles of colorful ovoid “yoga balls” of varying sizes (also known as “peanuts,” they help patients with stretching and otherwise promote mobility); mattresses used in various exercises; low sets of poles, like those seen in agility competitions, which can improve gait and increase spatial awareness; and other equipment.

There’s also a hoist that can lift large dogs who aren’t walking well on land into the treadmill tank, where warm water helps reduce muscle spasms, increases circulation, and promotes flexibility. (Plus, it’s much more pleasant for the vet techs who sometimes have to stand waist-deep in the tank—either because it’s a dog’s first session, or because the animal needs extra support.)

“Our goal is to optimize a patient’s function,” says Chris Frye, DVM ’11, an assistant clinical professor at CVM and the service’s section chief, who did his residency in sports medicine and rehab on the Hill. “If the goal is to get that animal back to sport, we find the best way to do it; if the goal is to manage a spinal cord injury, we do that appropriately, and make sure the patient has a good, healthy life.”

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A man next to a dog in a vet hospital
Frye with a patient on a balance training device. (Photo by Noël Heaney/Cornell University)

The Sports Medicine service does indeed treat many four-legged athletes—be they hunting dogs, agility champs, retired racers, competitors in lure coursing or scent-detection, or other highly active canines—as well as military, police, and service dogs.

But many patients are simply pets, like Nikki, whose owners come from all over the Northeast and beyond to get top-flight treatment for their furry family members.

Our goal is to optimize a patient’s function.

Chris Frye, DVM ’11

“One of the things I enjoy most is that we really improve quality of life for these animals,” says Allison Miller ’03, DVM ’07, a lecturer on the CVM faculty who’s also an acupuncturist and a Sports Medicine resident.

“And because we see the patients again and again—to update their exercises or recheck their function, or if they're getting acupuncture or a session on the underwater treadmill—we really build relationships with our clients, who are so committed to their pets. As a veterinarian, I find that incredibly rewarding.”

an info graphic depicted patient numbers

Those dedicated clients include Nancy Almann ’83, an Ithaca-area resident and CALS alum whose 10-year-old Akita, Kiyo, has been coming to the service for about a year and a half for treatment of osteoarthritis in her shoulders, elbows, and hips.

In addition to underwater treadmill sessions and acupuncture, Kiyo (pronounced “KEE-oh”) gets medication, platelet-rich plasma injections, and a regimen of physical therapy exercises to do at home.

“The fact that I can give her something that helps her so much feels like a partial return for all she's done for me,” Almann says of Kiyo, who holds titles in such areas as nose work (scent detection), agility, pack (trail hiking with a heavy backpack), performing tricks, and rally obedience (in which handlers guide their dogs through a prescribed course), and has served as a therapy animal through a CVM program.

“The treatment she has at Cornell improves her quality of life. She's in less discomfort, and she enjoys her sessions; when she comes back, she clearly feels much better. She roars around the house, jumps on the couch, and throws toys and pillows around.”

A woman in scrubs sitting next to a dog
Dr. Sayaka Shiomitsu, a Sports Medicine intern, with Kiyo. (Photo by Jason Koski/Cornell University)

Almann, herself a chiropractor, praises the Sports Medicine staff for the time and care they’ve devoted to Kiyo. She adopted the dog—whose name is a shortened translation of “pure beauty” in Japanese—as a puppy who’d nearly been euthanized for medical reasons; happily, what the breeder feared was severe neurological damage turned out to be deafness.

“She has a world-class team focused on her care,” Almann says. “If the rehab team had a fan club, I’d be the president; I can’t say enough good things about them. They’re thorough, kind, thoughtful, and dedicated. I couldn’t ask for better support. They’re just phenomenal.”

Top: Video by Cornell University

Published February 18, 2022


  1. Dorianne Almann

    Fascinating article.

  2. Carolyn Huntoon Russell, Class of 1960

    It sounds like you can do more for animals with osteoarthritis than is available for aging people with the same problem. Kiyo “gets medication, platelet-rich plasma injections”
    – Do you know of anything similar for us especially plasma injections and where such treatments are being done?

    • Eugene, Class of 1991

      Carolyn, platelet-rich plasma (PRP) and other advanced treatments are being performed by some orthopedic doctors. Try an online search for PRP orthopedic treatment in your area, or in a nearby city. When I looked into it a few years ago it was quite expensive and not covered by insurance; that may have since changed.

  3. Chelsea C., Class of 2020

    The Sports Med team at Cornell is great and really helps patients and their families. Awesome job, guys!

  4. Barbara Farrell, Class of 1996

    Kudos for the tremendous work you are doing to help animals that may otherwise have been abandoned or worse. It is amazing to see how much you have accomplished.

  5. Robert Hellman, Class of 1976

    Best medical specialty ever.

  6. Alissa Beveridge, Class of 1990

    Wondering about out of state dogs with DM? Does water therapy help if the dog does not have use of his back legs. He does receive electro-acupuncture on a regular basis and walks using a cart. Please advise thanks

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