Gym offers ‘sports medicine’ for pets; iguanas welcome

Workouts at Whole Animal Gym in Philadelphia include

Workouts at Whole Animal Gym in Philadelphia include hydrotherapy. (Credit: Twitter / @WholeAnimalGym)

PHILADELPHIA - It’s exercise time at Whole Animal Gym (WAG) in the Queen Village neighborhood of Philadelphia, and jumping up onto the equipment is a yellow Labrador retriever, ready for her weekly workout.

But Lucy’s workout includes an unconventional routine — hydrotherapy, which utilizes an underwater treadmill and occasionally, a squirt of Easy Cheese as a motivational treat.

Lucy is an agility dog that had to put her competition career on hold after developing lumbosacral disease, a condition that creates soreness and weakness in the lower back.

Within two years using the services at the gym, the friendly lab was able to enter and qualify for an agility event, says her owner, Barbara Silverstein.

In addition to hydrotherapy, Lucy use cavaletti rails, a series of obstacles that help with mobility and balance, as a way to help condition the rear part of her body.

“There’s no question in my mind this place has helped,” said Silverstein, as she filled up the water tank while Lucy patiently awaited her day’s workout.

Whole Animal Gym’s owners say Lucy is just one of the success stories at the facility, where holistic treatments are used as a complementary treatment alongside traditional Western medicine.

WAG was opened in 2010 by husband-and-wife team Dr. Christina Fuoco, a veterinarian, and Chad Carnahan, the director of operations. The center serves as a referral service to the veterinary community, with a goal to get the word out about all that they offer and to educate the general public on how to keep their pets healthy and happy.

Its owners say WAG is the only veterinary rehabilitation facility in Philadelphia that welcomes all animals, and offers hydrotherapy, acupuncture, a full dog gym, ultrasound, and laser treatments.

Whether a pet is brought in for weight loss or acupuncture for arthritis, WAG’s promise is for all pets to have an environment where they can work on pain management and enforce a healthy and active lifestyle.

Leigh Siegfried, certified pet dog trainer, said that she sends clients’ dogs to WAG.

It could be an owner looking to increase the quality of life for an older pet or a dog in need of postoperative therapy after a hip surgery, but any pet can benefit from the services at the center, Siegfried said.

“It’s nice to have a person like (Fuoco) that is experienced and can take a look at any dog, any age,” said Siegfried.

WAG was named best dog gym in Philadelphia Magazine’s Best of Philly 2013.

Clients like Dubi, a 7-year-old golden retriever with no cartilage in his back legs and arthritis in his joints, also appear pleased with the gym and the holistic services it offers. Dubi undergoes acupuncture, herbal treatments and physical therapy.

Fuoco said that receiving help from both medication and the services at WAG has helped keep pain and inflammation down in his joints, and overall he is able to stay active and playful.

Fuoco said recently the American Veterinary Medical Association has recognized sports medicine as an up-and-coming form of medicine in the canine industry, and that rehab and physical therapy is a newer field in veterinary medicine.

Hydrotherapy is a form of this medicine, and Dubi uses the underwater treadmill so he can continue to use his muscles freely, without risk of injury.

His owner, Rachel Smith, said that when they used to live in California, Dubi was always out hiking on trails and mountains. Over time, due to his arthritis, Dubi sometimes can’t even walk down the stairs.

“After his hydrotherapy (at WAG), he’ll run around in crazy circles,” said Smith. “It’s amazing to have friends tell me they can see a difference.”

The underwater treadmill doesn’t just benefit the dogs that are in for rehabilitation; it is also useful for those pooches looking to lose extra pounds.

Fuoco said the challenging part is getting the pet’s exercise to fit in with their owner’s schedule, which is why the gym allows for flexible scheduling and recently added a pet “gym membership” to make visits more frequent and affordable.

For clients looking to help their pets lose weight, WAG staff will assess the animal to create a plan of action, as weight has emerged as an increasing health issue. Nationwide, 52.6 percent of dogs and 57.2 percent of cats are overweight or obese, according to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention.

WAG will teach pet owners how they can make feeding adjustments and choose healthy alternatives at home. The overweight dog also will come in to use the underwater treadmill, which lightens the weight on the animal’s limbs while exercising.

The gym’s staff not only strives to meet the needs of every furry friend (and the iguana client that comes in for acupuncture), but they also educate pet owners and the public about the best ways they can take care of their four-legged friends.

“Whether they were in for acupuncture or an evaluation, we send a report back to their practitioner so they know what we are doing is a complement to what they are doing,” said Fuoco. “We are complementing what the Western world knows about medicine.”

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