BY Elyan Shor, Ph.D.
Physical therapy is a routine practice in human medicine to address some of the natural changes that occur in aging bodies, such as limitations in mobility and function, or degenerative conditions like arthritis. But people aren’t the only ones that can benefit from physical therapy: it is also a highly effective practice in zoological medicine, because regardless of species or setting, all bodies age.
San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance is at the forefront of the emerging field of physical therapy for wildlife—or, physical rehabilitation, as it’s commonly called in veterinary medicine. Physical rehabilitation is prescribed in addition to necessary medical interventions, and it is resulting in significant health improvements. Due to its gentle nature, it is a safe and pain-free treatment in which patients participate voluntarily. This is part of our commitment to comprehensive and innovative medical approaches that drive the highest standards of well-being and health for animals under our care.
Click here to learn more about physical rehabilitation programs at the San Diego Zoo, and continue scrolling to see them in action:
At 23 years old, Bola is a geriatric three-banded armadillo, and physical rehabilitation helps prevent arthritis in her hip from limiting her movements. Her therapeutic exercise program—complete with a custom-built, armadillo-sized staircase—encourages strength building and a full range of motion.
To address her arthritis and maintain normal joint function, 11-year-old Peanut the North American beaver is prescribed therapeutic massage and exercise, as well as acupuncture. These combined therapies are effective because they treat her whole body, inducing benefits such as improved coordination and fluidity of movements.
…Did someone say “acupuncture”?
Acupuncture is another tool in San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance’s multi-modal approach to medical treatment, including for cases of arthritis and discomfort in muscles, bones, or other tissues. Senior veterinarian Beth Bicknese, DVM, MPVM, cVMA, is certified in veterinary medical acupuncture and has been applying it at the San Diego Zoo since 2015. Dr. Bicknese explains that acupuncture is an appealing treatment modality because it is virtually risk-free, and since all animals under our care have nerves, it is suitable for a wide array of patients.
Dr. Bicknese is a practitioner of neuroanatomical acupuncture, a technique that is based on the connectivity of nerves and tissues. Although acupuncture begins as a physical process in which very small needles are placed in the skin, its effects are physiological: for example, it can affect the signals that nerves transmit to muscles, organs, and other tissues throughout the body.
When pain nerves are activated, they send signals that travel up the spinal cord and reach the brain, where the signals are consciously perceived as something hurting. Chronic pain, such as that caused by arthritis, occurs when pain nerves overreact and send constant or unregulated pain signals to the brain.
In brief, acupuncture works by using needles to activate “non-pain nerves” (such as temperature or touch nerves). Upon stimulation, these non-pain nerves also begin to send signals along the spinal cord to the brain. These additional signals essentially create a traffic jam of information, thus getting in the way of pain signals being sent to the brain, while also giving pain nerves a chance to reset to less reactive levels. “The effects of acupuncture last long after the needles are removed because structures under the skin continue to activate the non-pain nerves to fire signals to the brain,” says Dr. Bicknese.
Though acupuncture can be done while an animal is under anesthesia, many patients participate voluntarily in their sessions. Dr. Bicknese notes that some patients even fall asleep during or immediately after their treatment, indicating the feelings of relaxation that acupuncture can induce.
One of Dr. Bicknese’s patients is Purple the tuatara. Purple was born with scoliosis (an abnormal curvature of the spine), which caused her to develop severe hunching that negatively affected her mobility and activity. After five years of physical rehabilitation—including acupuncture and therapeutic massage to relax her back muscles—Purple is no longer hunching, and her activity levels have greatly improved.
Some of Dr. Bicknese’s other cases include treating limb weakness in a flamingo, relieving tightness in a cheetah’s spine, and restoring a Komodo dragon’s movement and comfort following leg surgery. While these are just a few of her many patients, they exemplify the breadth of wildlife that can benefit from acupuncture. This work is also a testament to the efficacy of physical rehabilitation, and the importance of multi-modal treatments in veterinary medicine.