Yes, your cats can benefit from rehab. Just don’t push them

Underwater treadmills, exercise balls, wobble boards, range of motion exercises: I’m not talking about the offerings at your local gym, but about rehab options for cats. Yes, cats.

While you might have trouble imagining a cat powering through an underwater treadmill workout, it turns out that given the right motivation and handling, cats respond well to rehab therapies that help to relieve pain and heal injuries.

Thanks to their anatomy - being loose jointed and light on their paws -- cats are less likely than dogs to suffer traumatic injuries such as broken bones from falls, but with age they begin to develop stiff hips, elbows, stifles (knees) and tarsi (ankle) joints. Back arthritis is common, too. In cats older than 6 years, 61 percent show signs of degenerative joint disease, a figure that rises to 90 percent in cats older than 12 years.

“If you have a cat that’s middle-aged, this cat most likely is going to develop degenerative joint disease,” said Carolina Medina, DVM, in last month’s VMX presentation “Purrfect Rehab: Mobility and Pain Management Techniques for Cats.”

Cats can also suffer nerve damage, such as vascular or compressive injuries to the spinal cord, or deformities that make it difficult for them to use their limbs. An example would be a heritable condition called sacrocaudal dysgenesis, seen in Manx cats. This malformation of the vertebrae of the lower back and tail can cause them to have trouble using their hind legs.

Obesity puts pressure on already painful joints and decreases quality of life. These conditions and more can respond to rehab techniques.

If your cat’s behavior has changed, she may be in pain. The most common signs of pain in cats are reduced activity, especially at night, when cats tend to be more active; decreased frequency of jumping; resisting handling or petting, especially on the back; and a stiff gait. If your cat shows these signs, ask your veterinarian about physical rehab exercises and other techniques, such as acupuncture and cold laser, which can help.

Passive and active range of motion exercises help to improve joint integrity, decrease pain and lubricate joints. Walking over unsteady surfaces such as wobble boards and exercise balls build core strength and balance and improve the cat’s perception of where his limbs are and how they’re moving. Stepping over cavaletti rails improves stride length and range of motion.

Among Dr. Medina’s patients, a paralyzed kitten gets a workout by chasing a ball and an 11-year-old cat with intervertebral disc disease walks over cavaletti and performs assisted activities on exercise equipment. For the latter cat, the reward for her efforts is to walk into her carrier and go home.

At home, help cats by providing cat trees with lower perches, steps to furniture, soft bedding and shallow litter boxes. For instance, a long, shallow seed tray is easy for a cat to enter and exit. Decreasing the amount of litter in the box provides a more stable surface for unsteady cats to walk on.

The main thing to know is that unlike dogs, cats aren’t people pleasers. They will do the exercises and sometimes even seem to enjoy them, but when they’re done, they’re done. Don’t try to push them further, Dr. Medina says.

Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and Kim Campbell Thornton, author of many pet-care books. The two are affiliated with