September 09. 2013 10:13PM

Animal therapy provides relief in Nashua

Union Leader Correspondent

NASHUA — When Toni Nelson's dog starting having trouble getting around, eventually dragging his back legs rather than walking on all fours, she was determined to find a way to help her best friend.

Nelson, of Milford, decided to take action and try to prevent any further damage caused by her dog's degenerative myelopathy, a progressive disease of the spinal cord that can lead to paralysis.

She took Banner, a 12-year-old Pembroke Welsh corgi, to Horse 'n Hound Physical Therapy on Amherst Street in Nashua, hoping for relief for her pet.

"I know that he will never climb up the steps again, but this water therapy lets him do some walking, which he cannot do on his own," said Nelson, who owns Happy Paws Pet Grooming. "His father had this problem too, so I knew it was a possibility. What is important now is that we try to maintain the muscle that he has remaining."

Twice a week, Banner undergoes a hydrotherapy session using an Aqua Paws underwater treadmill, which allows him to walk on all four paws instead of just his front limbs.

Physical therapy for animals is popular in Europe and is making strides in the United States, said Jennifer Brooks, owner of Horse 'n Hound Physical Therapy.

Her facility is one of four in New Hampshire that specializes in therapeutic options for horses, dogs and cats that are challenged with mobility issues — both temporary or long-term diagnoses.

She opened her Nashua clinic in June 2012, and the client list continues to grow, said Brooks, who is hoping to eventually expand to include clinics in western and northern New Hampshire.

"I feel so lucky to be using my professional skills and talents on these animals. This is what speaks to me," said Brooks, who has two cats, two dogs and two horses of her own.

Brooks started her career in physical therapy for humans, but ultimately was called to become an equine rehabilitation practitioner. She is a licensed physical therapist and holds a master's degree in education, with certificates in equine and canine rehabilitation from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

Although Horse 'n Hound Physical Therapy wasn't formed until last year, Brooks founded Equine Rehabilitation Services LLC in 2006, and expanded her services to include dogs and cats in 2010. With many people traveling into Massachusetts for animal physical therapy, Brooks realized that the demand for animal services in southern New Hampshire was great.With the help of her husband, J.W. Brooks, the Brookline couple now has a full calendar of weekly therapy sessions, helping pets of all ages overcome pain associated with post-surgery stiffness, joint compression, spinal cord pressure, herniated discs, elbow dysplasia and more.

Their clinic offers heat and cold therapy, electric stimulation, massages, therapeutic ultrasounds, low dose ultrasound equipment and therapeutic laser to help dogs, cats and horses relieve pain, resolve inflammation and promote faster healing. "We often see a lot of dogs during their geriatric years who are struggling with hind end weakness," said Brooks. "If you just let weakness lay around, it just gets weaker."

In the facility's gym, exercise equipment such as stairs, ladders, balance boards and stability balls are used to motivate the animals to use limbs that may be weaker than others. "At first they may feel very out of control," Brooks said of using some of the equipment. "But once they are familiar with the routine, we begin promoting core stability and good coordination, which will prevent back injuries."Horse 'n Hound also offers adaptive equipment for pets, including wheelchairs, lift harnesses, leg splints and more. Therapy sessions range anywhere from 15 minutes to a full hour, costing between $35 and $95 for treatments.

As for Banner, Brooks says that water therapy has many benefits for dogs suffering with degenerative myelopathy. Banner spends 25 minutes a session walking in the underwater treadmill, often receiving treats to help motivate him to complete the therapy.

While Banner may never regain full mobility in his hind legs, Nelson said it is still important for him to continue the therapy and try to remain as active as he can, which will strengthen his front legs and keep him happier and healthier.

That is what animal physical therapy is all about, Brooks said, explaining that it is crucial to strengthen weak muscles and promote longevity for pets of all sizes.