By Barbara Sherf

Michelle Lazarski, who formerly did physical therapy with humans, now works with animals like Fly at the Chestnut Hill Veterinary Hospital in Erdenheim. (Photo by Barbara Sherf)

As humans are increasingly sent to physical therapy by their primary care physicians, more and more pet owners are taking their pets to rehab following an injury, surgery or to simply help the animals stay fit and healthy as they age.

Locally, the Chestnut Hill Animal Hospital is celebrating the one-year anniversary of the opening of their rehabilitation, fitness and pain management facility in nearby Erdenheim.

It is owned by Dr. Sheldon Gerstenfeld, who has practiced veterinary medicine for 51 years, written eight adult and children’s books and was a contributing editor for Parents Magazine for 21 years. Philadelphia Magazine honored him as one of “23 Great Vets,” and Penn Veterinary School gave him an Alumni Award of Merit. In addition to his Penn Vet School education, Dr. Gerstenfeld received training and certification in veterinary acupuncture and food therapy.

Sitting in what is referred to as “the cottage,” a quiet, peaceful separate building that became the rehab center, Dr. Gerstenfeld said, “Rehabilitation complements everything we do with the animals. Even if an animal has not suffered an injury, we feel rehab should be started in mid-age to keep them fit.

“Just as humans have mobility issues with aging, we need to keep on top of our furry family members in terms of diet, exercise and keeping the muscles in good shape, so there aren’t hip and other mobility issues down the road,” Various modalities are used such as a cold laser, microcurrent therapy or pulsed electromagnetic field therapy, all to aid in tissue healing and recovery, and a treadmill will soon be available.

Michelle Lazarski, a physical therapist certified in canine rehabilitation, has joined Dr. Gerstenfeld to work with dogs, cats and even guinea pigs and rabbits who have pain or mobility issues. Pain is also addressed with Chinese and Western herbs.

“As a child my dream was to work with animals,” said Lazarski, “but I began my career in human medicine in the form of physical therapy. Now I am able to combine the two professions, which I love. It’s certainly more challenging to work with animals that can’t necessarily tell you what they are feeling. You have to get very creative to get an animal to work on a particular area.”

One such animal Lazarski is working on is Fly, an eight-year old Border Collie who is a sporting dog competing in agility training and sheep herding. Ironically, Fly was simply chasing a ball when she suffered a disc injury and was unable to walk on her hind legs.

Her owner, who is a veterinarian, travels twice a week from Chester County for rehabilitation, working on various exercises for strength, balance and coordination, as well as massage, stretching and modalities for tissue healing. Fly then sees Dr. Gerstenfeld, who inserts small acupuncture needles.

Fly’s’ owner, Dr. Pam Mueller, drives 45 minutes to an hour twice a week to get Fly in shape for the sheep trials. “While surgery was not amenable for Fly,” said Dr. Mueller, “I worked to get her in here within 48 hours of her neurologic event to start rehabilitation and get her moving again. You can see when she turns sharply, she falls over, so we need to continue working on strengthening her core.”

At her session, Lazarski used a wobble board, colorful inflatable peanuts and poles to target specific muscles for strengthening, flexibility, balance and conditioning. “We use treats to get her to perform certain movements,” said Lazarski, who graduated from the University of Tennessee Canine Rehabilitation Certificate Program 14 years ago.

“The majority of referrals are through word-of-mouth from local veterinarians. This is becoming increasingly accepted in veterinary medicine and is becoming the standard of care following orthopedic surgery.”

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