Exercises to Improve Proprioception

By Krista Williams, BSc, DVM, CCRP

What is proprioception?

Sometimes labelled “the sixth sense,” proprioception keeps track of where the body (limbs, head, and trunk) is in space (with respect to the surrounding environment). The brain constantly receives updates from sensors, often called proprioceptors, in muscles, joints, tendons, and ligaments. This information tells the brain where different parts of the body are without seeing them.

Why is proprioception important?

Proprioception is one of the main reasons that animals aren’t constantly falling or running into things. The brain receives the signal that they are in an abnormal position and, before they are aware of it, their body adjusts to prevent falling (in most cases).

Proprioception also contributes to coordinated movements and balance. Proprioception is why animals can walk without staring at their feet. Animals with decreased proprioception may stumble, trip, or fall more often. Good proprioception is key to avoiding injury.

What causes reduction or loss of proprioception?

Many conditions can disrupt normal proprioception including spinal cord trauma from an injury, intervertebral disc disease (IVDD), or fibrocartilaginous embolic myelopathy (FCEM). Proprioception is also reduced in older animals and animals with osteoarthritis or other musculoskeletal conditions like cruciate ligament disease.

How can I help my pet with a proprioception disability?

With guidance from a certified veterinary rehabilitation therapist, there are several therapeutic exercises you can do with your pet to maintain or even improve their proprioception, balance, and coordination, and increase their overall quality of life.

It is important to give your pet’s rehabilitation therapist regular feedback so they can guide the best therapeutic home exercise program for your pet.

What dogs can benefit from proprioception exercises?

Increasing proprioception will help every pet.

  • Dogs or cats who are involved in sport can reduce their risk of injury and potentially improve their performance.
  • Pets who have experienced a disruption in their neurologic system, like disc disease, may need to re-learn where to place their limbs to improve their stability and mobility.
  • Older pets who have had joint injuries or osteoarthritis will be able to regain or maintain their functional independence – the ability to get where they want to go safely, when they want to go there.

As well as increasing the bond between you and your pet, exercises for proprioception can help maintain or build muscle, increase core strength, increase mobility and flexibility, increase cardiovascular fitness, relieve stiffness, reduce swelling, and can be relaxing.

*Do not attempt any proprioception exercises with your pet unless they have been prescribed by your veterinarian or veterinary rehabilitation therapist. If your pet appears sore or tired (legs shaking, panting, wide eyes), discontinue the exercise and contact your veterinarian. Never progress to a more difficult option unless your veterinary rehabilitation therapist recommends it.

Static (non-walking) exercises to improve proprioception

These exercises include weight shifting, cookie stretches, and three-legged stands. Many of these can often be done with cats as well as dogs, although you may have to get creative with your cat to encourage their participation. Your rehabilitation therapist can give you some great tips based on your cat’s personality.

Your pet will remain standing squarely (evenly) throughout the exercises with or without support. Your rehabilitation therapist can suggest a supportive device to help if needed. You may need an assistant to focus your pet’s attention to the front for most of the exercises. Alternatively, a tasty, sticky treat like peanut butter or creamy treat like Catit Creamy can be placed at nose level on a vertical surface, in front of your pet, to keep their attention.

Your rehabilitation therapist will tell you what level of difficulty is needed for each exercise:

  • Easy: Your pet stands as evenly as possible on a solid, non-slip surface.
  • Medium: Your pet stands on a less stable horizontal surface like a foam matt, air mattress, or couch cushion.
  • Hard: Your pet stands with one end of their body higher than the other. For example, front limbs one step above the floor or hind limbs on a sidewalk curb while the front limbs are on the road.
  • Even Harder: Make the lower surface slightly unstable by using a foam mat, air mattress, or couch cushion (ensuring it can’t slide).
  • Challenging: All four limbs are placed on uneven surfaces, requiring more effort to balance while performing the exercises. This level of difficulty should be restricted to use by rehabilitation therapists unless your pet’s therapist indicates you can do it safely.

Always be ready to support your pet to avoid falling and further injury. 

Weight shifting

Gently put pressure side to side over your dog’s hips and/or shoulders ________ times, then allow rest.

Then, gently move their body from front to back _________ times.

Alternatively, use the position of a treat to encourage your pet to lean backwards and forwards. Moving the treat slightly up and back will cause your pet to look up and naturally shift their weight back, but they shouldn’t be allowed to sit. Moving it slightly forward or down will trigger a forward weight shift.

Repeat this process ___ times at ___________________________ difficulty level.

Cookie stretches

These stretches are another way to encourage weight shifting and can be performed at any difficulty level mentioned above. They stretch the neck and spine and improve flexibility and proprioception.

Using something tasty, lure your dog’s nose to a certain part of their body (goal points) without moving their feet. This can be challenging and may require a second person until your dog gets the hang of it!

Goal Points Repetitions Difficulty Level Shoulders Easy     Medium     Hard     Even Harder Elbows Easy     Medium     Hard     Even Harder Chest Easy     Medium     Hard     Even Harder Hip Easy     Medium     Hard     Even Harder Knee Easy     Medium     Hard     Even Harder Front Foot Easy     Medium     Hard     Even Harder Back Foot Easy     Medium     Hard     Even Harder

Three-legged stands

Three-legged stands are another way to encourage weight shifting, challenging balance, and proprioception. You will notice your dog has an easier time lifting one limb than another. This difference should become less noticeable as your dog becomes stronger and gains increased proprioception and balance. Always start with the limb your pet is more comfortable lifting. Your rehabilitation therapist can let you know if any limbs should not be lifted.

Lift your pet’s leg gently without putting pressure on any of the joints or touching the paw pads. Ensure you are lifting through the leg’s normal range of motion (i.e., pull or twist the limb outwards). The leg shouldn’t be lifted so high that you see a shift in your pet’s back to compensate. Try to prevent your pet from resting their weight on your hand by moving it slightly so your hand is not a “stable” surface. Continue to hold the leg up slightly for 3-5 seconds then slowly lower it to a normal standing position.

Repeat this process ______ times with (circle):

Left Front                     Right Front
Left Hind                      Right Hind

Walking exercises to improve proprioception

Many exercises can be incorporated into your pet’s regular exercise routine to improve their proprioception. Something as simple as walking through long grass, mulch, or through deeper snow can increase the sensations from your pet’s legs and improve their proprioception. This is often more effective for all four limbs if you encourage your pet to walk slowly.

Walking slowly up and down hills in a straight line and in a zig zag pattern will force your pet to concentrate on where their limbs need to be to avoid falling, as these uneven surfaces challenge the body’s natural proprioceptive reactions.

Walking backwards

This exercise is great for proprioception, balance, core strength and overall strength. There are many ways to train a dog to walk backwards. Some dogs will back up if you walk towards them with a cookie held low (at the level of their nose or chest). Other dogs may sit when asked to walk backwards. Sitting can be prevented by placing a hand under the belly while asking for the backup. Try to keep the backwards walking as straight as possible. You may have to perfom this maneuver in a narrow hallway at first. It may take time, but you can teach an old dog new tricks!

Proprioception can be improved by asking your dog to walk around obstacles. Weaving through a row of pylons or circling around trees all improve how your pet responds to changes in their position.

Cavaletti poles

Cavaletti poles are a favourite mobility exercise as they can help improve your pet’s movement, balance, and proprioception in many ways and are easy to setup and practice.

Cavaletti poles are a line of clearly visible poles that your pet will step over. They are placed at specific heights and distances apart. You can easily make these poles yourself with broom handles that can be left on the floor or raised off the ground with pylons, bricks, or other stable surfaces. There are also many commercially available options.

Cavaletti poles must be set up on a non-slip surface. The number of poles, how high to raise them, and how far apart to place them will depend on your dog’s mobility level. Generally, the first time a dog is challenged with cavalettis, the rails are spaced at least body length apart and no more than the height of their ankles. As your pet’s mobility improves and they become accustomed to the cavaletti poles, your veterinary rehabilitation therapist may recommend shortening the distance between and/or raising the pole height.

Recommendation (circle)

Number of poles:             2                      3                      4                      6                      8

Height: Ground Between ground and ankle Ankle Other__________________ Distance apart: Body length Half body length Other__________________

Get regular guidance from a veterinary rehabilitation therapist

Guided or therapeutic exercise is possibly the most important way we can help our pets improve their mobility. Check in with your veterinary rehabilitation therapist regularly to make sure you are providing your pet with the right amount of exercise and the right level of difficulty. Your pet’s needs will change regularly, and regular guidance from a certified therapist will help you keep them in their best physical shape possible.

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