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I Spent a Day at a Physiotherapy Center for Disabled Pets

I saw a paralyzed cat regain mobility and found out that some animals would rather shit on the water treadmill than work out.

by Laurène Flament
Apr 21 2015, 2:15pm

Gibson, who recently underwent surgery for a slipped disc, training himself on the underwater treadmill. All photos by Paul Villard.

This article originally appeared on VICE France.

Alforme is a physiotherapy clinic for animals that opened in 2013 in Maisons-Alfort in France. Founded by veterinarian Artem Rogalev, these days the center takes care of up to 20 patients a day. Initially, the practice only dealt with "work" animals like rescue dogs and police horses, but interest has grown so much in the last couple of years that it's had to expand its services to fit all creatures.

Unlike in Anglo-Saxon countries, where similar practices have been fairly prevalent since the 1980s, pet physiotherapy remains relatively unheard of in France. It's not totally crazy to think that animals can be treated using some of the same techniques as humans, but it's only recently that animal insurance brokers in France gave the nod to places like Alforme.

Animal physiotherapy is basically human physiotherapy. It is also mostly reliant on machines that perform all kinds of services—from ultrasounds to electro-stimulation therapy. And just like with humans, animals get their therapy over a lengthy (and pricey) course of sessions.

Spok, the veterinarian's dog, working away on a balancing ball.

Each and every case at Alforme starts off with a consultation, during which the vet tries to figure out what's wrong with the animal and thereby develop a course of treatment to better the situation or remove the issue altogether. Things like running, balance work with balloons, stretching, electro-sound, shock waves, aquatic treadmills, and whirlpools are pretty common treatments. But even if there is nothing actually wrong with your guinea pig, you can always just book it in for a sort of household pet spa session.

Around 60 percent of all animals that come to Alforme require treatment for things like osteoarthritis, paralysis or rupture of the cruciate ligaments, while fitness cures for overweight and older pets are also quite common. Ninety five percent of visitors are either dogs or cats, but the clinic is also frequented by rabbits, ferrets, and even a parrot that almost did itself in by getting caught in the bars of its cage. After the vet decides a course of treatment, each patient partakes in an average of roughly ten sessions before Artem performs an assessment in order to gauge improvement.

The vet tries to get First out of the water.

On the day I visited, Alforme's first patient was a dog called First—a heavyset, 160 pound beast of a hound that suffers from a deficit in hind leg muscles. As a preventative treatment, as well as to prepare for old age, his owner brings him to the center once a week to undergo muscle-building therapy. This was his eighth session.

Last time he was at Alforme, First had a go on the underwater treadmill. But, understandably confused and a bit scared, he freaked out and pretty much wrecked the machine. This time around, First had to start by spending 12 minutes in the pool. Due to his size, the elevator wasn't enough to get him into the water, so a vet had to help wrestle him in there. The idea with lowering dogs into the water is that they'll begin to swim instinctively, which should build up the required leg muscle.

Ina undergoing an ultrasound.

Ina, a one-and-a-half-year old Shar Pei, came by for her seventh ultrasound session. Suffering from congenital dislocation of the patella and box walking, the vet decided to use ultrasound because of the way that the machine heats up and then relaxes the joints. The little dog shook like a leaf during her session and looked painfully uncomfortable.

After the ultrasound, Ina had her turn on the aquatic treadmill and, to be fair, she seemed a whole lot more in her element running around on that thing. The machine has a variable belt speed so that it can be adjusted depending on the capabilities of the individual animal. This particular treatment makes the dog put in an additional effort to move forward because of the water—but with softer movements.

Related: "The Most Expensive Dog in the World"

Artem is very proud of his work at Alforme and wasn't afraid to use his own two dogs, Spok and Bémol, to give us a bit of a demonstration—a combination of jumping on balloons and running on a treadmill, which basically ended up looking like some weird canine acrobatic show. It was pretty obvious that these prize dogs were in good shape. And they need to be, given that these are the very same dogs that Artem tests all of his latest therapy workshops on.

Felindra during her electro-stimulation session.

A six-month-old cat named Félindra was brought into the center after she accidentally fell out of a third-floor window a few months back. She fractured her back in three separate places and ended up paralyzed from her lower spine right down to her back legs. This was the fourth time that she'd come in to get electro-stimulation; the goal being to help retain the muscle mass around the spinal cord so that she can walk properly once the fractures have healed.

After 15 minutes of watching her muscles spasm due to electric currents, Artem decided to test the cat's luck on the treadmill. Surprisingly enough, after what seemed like a limp eternity, the cat actually began to rely on her hind legs and made some steps by herself. It wasn't an entirely pleasant experience to watch a paralyzed cat flapping about on a treadmill, but the results were actually quite miraculous.

Benji, currently in treatment for a slipped disc, gets an ultrasound.

Throughout the afternoon, new patients kept coming in with all manner of ailments. One thing they all had in common was that they were both motivated and co-operative. Apparently this isn't always the case—some freak out, some shit in the pool, and others simply refuse to do anything.

Animal co-operation isn't the only factor in the healing process though. It's equally crucial that the owner is fully motivated to help their pet, as home exercises are an important part of the healing process. Let's face it though, if you go as far as to bring your cat to physiotherapy, you're probably more than a little motivated.

Of course, just like you'd expect with humans, the results of physiotherapy vary from case to case but all the animals we saw that day had made their own significant progress.

I guess that, regardless of how you might feel about animal physiotherapy, it's hard to deny the fact that spending a day watching dogs splashing around in water is probably one of the most adorable experiences you'll ever have.

Spok on the treadmill. Apparently, "he loves it."

First getting ripped in the pool.

The vet trying to get paralyzed cat Felindra to run on a treadmill.