Why demand for upscale animal rehabilitation facilities is growing in suburbs

Karen Flor was afraid her 9-year-old pit bull mix, Roo, wouldn't be able to live a full life after he lost a hind leg to cancer earlier this year.

But those fears disappeared as Flor recently watched Roo's tail wag excitedly while he completed an obstacle course and enjoyed peanut butter treats at a Buffalo Grove veterinary clinic's new athletic center.

“He is doing fantastic,” said Flor, who lives in Lincolnshire. “For us to see him even happier than he was before surgery has been amazing.”

  Left to right, rehab technician Amanda Santowski, veterinarian Lindsay Seilheimer and coordinator Emily Marshall work with Roo, who lost a leg due to amputation during cancer treatment, at the Veterinary Specialty Clinic in Buffalo Grove. Joe Lewnard/

Veterinary Specialty Center's new 8,600-square foot athletic center opened this month to meet the increasing demand for animal exercise and recovery services. The center is several times larger than VSC's former location, allowing it to provide more dogs with physical therapy, laser therapy, massages and other treatments, Rehabilitation Director Lindsay Seilheimer said.

The increased demand for doggy rehab comes as at least 50 percent of dogs and cats are overweight or obese, said Michael San Filippo, spokesman for the American Veterinary Medical Association.

“With that comes a lot of orthopedic diseases, arthritis, anything that affects the tendons and joints is a problem with excess weight,” he said.

On the other end of the spectrum, more people are bringing their dogs along with them on their high-impact exercises like jogging, which can lead to more sports-related injuries for their pet companions.

The big difference, though - making places like VSC more popular than ever - is the changed relationship between humans and our pets, San Filippo said.

“Over the last few generations we have brought our pets into our houses, into our beds in some cases, and included them as a part of our families,” he said. “Along with that comes a demand or expectation that they can get the same kinds of treatments that we get as humans.” That could include physical therapy like what the dogs at VSC get, acupuncture, or PTSD treatment for military dogs. In 2010, the American Veterinary Medical Association created a board certification for sports medicine and rehabilitation because of increased interest.

  Howie, a black lab owned by Ron Rohde of Chicago, works on an underwater treadmill with rehab specialist Erica Seils at the Veterinary Specialty Clinic in Buffalo Grove. Joe Lewnard/

“If people have a dog that is sick or injured, they are willing to go the extra mile to see what treatments are out there and give it a try,” he said.

That extra mile is one that Howie, a 14-year-old black Labrador, was walking on an underwater treadmill at VSC while enjoying treats from a rehab technician.

Owner Ron Rohde said Howie has weakened leg muscles due to his age and a torn tendon, so he visits the center weekly from his home in Chicago. The underwater treadmill takes much of the weight off Howie's joints so his muscles can relax, allowing him to exercise more easily than he could otherwise.

“It keeps him alive longer and it keeps him happy,” Rohde said.

Howie is so used to their trips from Chicago that halfway up the tollway he realizes where they are going and starts howling with excitement, Rohde said.

Officials said rehab services at VSC start at about $40 for every 15 minutes, but the length and frequency of treatments is up to owners.

  Val Nelson, left, massages Coach, a yellow lab owned by Laurie Hunken of Northbrook, at the Veterinary Specialty Clinic in Buffalo Grove. Joe Lewnard/

Laurie Hunken brought her yellow lab, Coach, to VSC because going from a lifetime of activity to old age has been difficult. He used to walk 4 miles a day, but at age 14, Coach tore his ACL and was having trouble getting around.

“I thought that might be the end for him,” said Hunken, who lives in Northbrook. But she started bringing him to VSC, where they tried all different kinds of therapy, including the full-body massage Coach was enjoying while snacking on some Cheerios.

“It might be as much for me as it is for him, but he's happy,” Hunken said. “It's all about quality of life.”

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