Whether we’re mobile or run a standard practice, exercise equipment forms a big part of what we do. It can be quite an investment; most of us get around the expense by starting small and adding pieces over time.

So where do we start? What are the critical pieces of equipment – the most versatile and mobile? Ideally, we buy the basics, then add items as parts of a set, so that each piece complements and matches the others –all from one supplier. To get value for money, we need to aim for good quality products with the right capabilities, materials, and safety features. 

Consider your Plans

To select the equipment that’s most suited to your needs, consider the kinds of patients you are likely to treat most frequently. Acute post-operative cases? Competitive dogs?

If you work closely with surgeons or specialist practices, you’re likely to treat acutely injured or post-operative dogs. This means your therapeutic exercises will be more basic and static, and fewer pieces will be needed.

If you’re situated further from veterinary practices and work closely with sporting dogs, your therapeutic exercises will be more interesting and active, you’ll need more advanced exercise equipment, such as peanut balls and donuts.

Consider, too, what you already have, and what exercise equipment would best complement these items. Do you use a land treadmill, an underwater treadmill or a swimming pool? Think about which pieces of equipment will complement your treadmill/pool the best, to give the greatest all-round treatment and the most options or variations for the exercise of your patients.

You want to be able to offer the best treatment possible to every patient that walks into your practice.  That means being able to adjust your therapeutic exercise protocol to suit the needs, personality and abilities of the dog in front of you. The more versatile and adjustable the equipment you use, the more you and they will benefit.

What’s Available?

Let’s look at some standard equipment:

Balance pads are rectangular foam pads, usually made from a closed-cell foam, about 6cm high and  38cm x 45cm wide and long. These are great as a starting point for any dog, as they are naturally stable, can be paired with any other piece of equipment, and can be stacked to increase the challenge. Balance pads are also exceptionally mobile.

Balance Disks are round, inflatable disks a few cm high (depending on level of inflation) and varying in circumference from 35cm to 55cm. One side is usually smooth and the other textured with bumps or knobs. This is a good basic piece of equipment that can be used for dogs in any phase of rehabilitation, easily pairing with other pieces of equipment. One can increase the difficulty by adding height under the disk or adding movement over and around it. It is also a naturally stable construction and will require minimal or no additional stabilization from a handler. Bases are available to improve their stability. They are also highly mobile.

Inflatable Wedges or Ramps are square in shape, with an inclined surface – one side approximately 6cm high,  and the other flat on the ground, with a textured and a smooth surface. They allow patients to work on a gentle slope. Wedges offer versatility in pairing with other pieces of equipment, are small and mobile. 

Paw Pods are small, inflatable pods, about 15cm in diameter and 7cm high – just big enough for a single paw to be placed on each pod. They come in textured or smooth surfaces. Paw pods allow for posturing across different breeds and sizes, do not generally need additional stabilization, and are very mobile. 

Donuts are donut-shaped, inflatable pieces of equipment with a flattened base and top. The middle is dipped or has a hole – ideally the hole needs to be big enough to prevent a foot becoming stuck in it. They are generally 27 to 33cm high and 55 to 60cm wide. Donuts can be quite challenging and should always be stabilized initially with a donut ring or base, depending on your product. These products are usually smooth, although textured donuts exist. They offer more stability than a peanut when stabilized, and are versatile, combining well with other products and suiting all dog sizes. 

Peanuts or Infinity Balls are inflatable, peanut-shaped balls. They come in textured and smooth surfaces, and vary in height from 30cm to 85cm. These balls offer a wide range of exercise opportunities, from simple to advanced. They are easy to pair with other exercise products, and can be stabilized with a purpose-built frame or against a wall or leg. 

Cavaletti Rails are poles that can be used at varying heights, allowing dogs of different sizes to step over them. They come in sets of four to six poles. There are many variations on the market, and are also easy to build yourself. They offer mobility and can be paired with some equipment. 

Proprioceptive Mats can come in many different varieties, and can be used for a variety of purposes. TotoFit has launched a new product – T0-Toe matz – to strengthen the ligaments and tendons of the digits and carpal joints. This mat will also be an addition to the strengthening program of neurologically deficit dogs. They are mobile and can be paired with almost any other product to increase the difficulty and challenge. 

Safety?

We’d all agree that safety is our number one priority when treating patients – both for ourselves and for our patients. This means using equipment that we can rely on. Balance equipment needs to be easy to stabilize. Stabilization can be provided either with a hand, leg or foot, or with a specific piece of stabilizing equipment such as a base for a disk, or holders for infinity balls and donuts.

Products should be burst resistant, so that even if they are punctured, they will not pop, but deflate slowly. The surface should not be slippery; some texture is necessary, even on a smooth surface. This can be in the form of ribbing along the rubber, or the material used. Material should be thick to avoid damage due to dog nails.

How important is it to use phthalate-, lead-, latex- and BPA-free products?

Phthalates are a group of chemicals used to soften PVC plastic to make it flexible and malleable. They can be found in most soft plastics, including toys and our exercise equipment. When phthalates enter our bodies, they mimic and interfere with our hormone systems. This can lead to major health problems such as cancer, autism, reproductive development abnormalities, asthma, and behavioural changes.  Phthalates are lipid soluble, allowing them to easily cross from a plastic product to something with a lipid base. Like so many toxins in our homes, their effect is cumulative; continual exposure from many sources is where the danger lies. Phthalates have been banned in the US from use in children’s toys and other products.

Since we work with recovering animals in a weakened state, it makes sense to avoid phthalates and other toxic substances that may cause health setbacks. For our own sakes, too, we should avoid toxic materials. We’re handling these products throughout the day, so that risk to ourselves is even greater than to our patients.

Where do we start?

A great starting point would be a balance pad, a large balance disk and a medium or large peanut ball. Having a large disk and peanut ball means you will not be limited when treating larger patients; a small dog can use a large piece of equipment, but a large dog cannot necessarily use a smaller piece of equipment. Cavaletti rails can be made initially, and added to these first pieces.

Over time, paw pods and wedges can be added, additional peanut ball sizes can be purchased, and eventually balance pads, different-sized balance disks and another donut. The additions allow for greater versatility.  With more pieces, an obstacle courses can be set up, multiple patients can be treated simultaneously, and we can design exercises that progress in difficulty from simple and easy to demanding and challenging.

Purchasing and using therapeutic exercise equipment is an exciting and fun step forward for the rehabilitation therapist.  Enjoy the process! Remember that good quality products are worth the extra cost, and never compromise on safety.

In Episode 8 of The Veterinary Rehabilitation Podcast, Dr Megan Kelly interviews Debbie Torraca from TotoFit about her line of therapeutic exercise equipment. For more information on their products, listen to the podcast here. We would also like to thank Debbie Torraca and TotoFit for allowing us to use their images for this article.

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