It’s a Passion

Dr. Carrie Adrian is not even supposed to come into the clinic on the day she meets me for an interview. She’s not dressed for a day at the clinic either. She’s exchanged the comfortable scrubs and tennis shoes for a sweater, leggings — generally considered dangerous around small, hairy animals — and boots. We make our way out of the main lobby area and find a quiet room to sit. As soon as we sit down, she’s paged to consult with another veterinarian.

“Want to go see a case?” She asks me, as we head to the back of the clinic. Would I really miss the chance to watch her work her magic? Absolutely not.

Izzy, a 12-year-old Golden Retriever, greets us as the other veterinarian immediately starts sharing her story. Some descriptions I understand and some I don’t — the perks of having been raised by two veterinarians.

They discuss the possibilities of surgery to fix a soft tissue issue that is causing Izzy to walk with a limp. Dr. Adrian runs her hands gently but precisely along Izzy’s back to emphasize how her limp has already started to affect the alignment of her spine.

They continue on, deciding the best solution to Izzy’s problem and I get the feeling that this is something that happens on a regular basis for Dr. Adrian. Being a leading canine rehabilitation specialist in the country gets you a significant number of referred cases from veterinarians not only from within your clinic, but also from across the country.

Dr. Carrie Adrian first began her career at Allegheny College in Meadville, PA where she received her Bachelor of Science in Biology in 1994. She went on to get her Master of Science in Physical Therapy from North Georgia College in 1999. That was when her whole career path shifted.

Dr. Adrian was among the first to be certified as a canine rehab practitioner from the University of Tennessee and served as faculty in the certificate program until 2004. (Source: VCA Veterinary Specialists of Northern Colorado)

“My girlfriend — who is since deceased, I swear she came into my life for a reason — gave me a flyer that there was a first international symposium on veterinary rehabilitation in the spring of 1999,” Dr. Adrian says. She thought to herself, at the time, that that was where she wanted to be.

Dr. Adrian spent a grand total of two-and-a-half months working in human physical therapy with patients from the ages of newborn to three-year-olds before she made the “not so big” switch to canine.

She interviewed with Dr. Robert Taylor, the chief of staff at Alameda East Veterinary Hospital in Denver and, some time later, Dr. Taylor called “out of the blue” and asked “do you want to do this?” She was sold.

In 2000, she sat down in the upstairs of Alameda East with Dr. Taylor and a few others to brainstorm about a certification program for canine rehabilitation.

“We just wrote on a dry-erase board what we thought veterinarians and physical therapists needed to know about each other’s profession,” Dr. Adrian remembers. They ended up developing the University of Tennessee program in veterinary rehabilitation.

She was among the first to be certified as a canine rehab practitioner from the University of Tennessee and served as faculty in the certificate program until 2004.

In 2007, Dr. Taylor asked her if she wanted to come back to school to complete the program that Colorado State University had developed in canine biomechanics. Not excited to go back to school, she reluctantly accepted.

While Dr. Adrian was still working towards her PhD, VCA Veterinary Specialists purchased Alameda East. She asked the board if she could serve as the Director of Rehabilitation Services, a position that did not even exist yet.

Dr. Adrian sent in a proposal and defined the job description and after the board accepted, she came on as Director of Rehabilitation and served at the VCA two days a week in order to maintain her focus on school.

In 2011, she received her PhD with a research focus related to electromyography and the canine cruciate ligament. It was the first degree of its kind in the country.

Never ceasing to quit teaching or learning, Dr. Adrian participated and continues to participate in a number of continuing education seminars on animal rehabilitation as a lecturer and a participant. The seminars have taken her around the world to places like Japan, Argentina, Brazil, the Netherlands, and Sweden. Next year, she’s going to Spain and Italy.

“It is a small, intimate group, there’s not many of us worldwide,” Dr. Adrian shares. “It’s fun to learn what others are doing. It’s not stagnant by any means.”

On a typical day at the clinic Dr. Adrian works at now, the VCA Veterinary Specialists of Northern Colorado located in North Loveland, she sees anywhere from 10 to 14 patients.

“It’s a little chaotic but it’s good,” Dr. Adrian admits. “It’s not the same thing every time.”

Her appointments are back-to-back, usually not more than 30 minutes since with her manually focused program — a program using specific hand placements and the precise application of forces to restore normal movement to joints and soft tissues — most dogs will only tolerate that much time to work on their injuries.

Most of the cases are return cases, either returning patients or owners bringing their other dogs in to receive the same treatment. This allows Dr. Adrian to build a significant foundation with her clients and the dogs.

“They learn to trust you,” Dr. Adrian shares. “They learn that you are there to help them. We’ve had some dogs come in with muzzles and by the end, weeks later, they’re happy to see you — that doesn’t happen often in the veterinary world.”

Dr. Carrie Adrian and Lady, one of her physical therapy dogs who is recovering from a life-threatening spinal cord injury. (Source: Loveland Reporter-Herald)

It’s hard not to get attached to patients, especially when you see them every day of the week, every week for up to four months.

“There are those few that tug at your heart strings,” Dr. Adrian recalls one particular patient that she had a real connection with. Gunner was a young Rottweiler who had a disk herniation in his neck — a condition where the cushioning discs between the vertebrae of the spinal column either bulge or burst (herniate) into the spinal cord space. These discs then press on the nerves running through the spinal cord causing pain, nerve damage, and even paralysis.

All of the veterinarians that worked on Gunner said he would never walk again and simply wrote him off. But not Dr. Adrian. He went back to surgery for a rhizotomy — severing the nerve roots in the spinal cord — for the pain after four months of rehabilitation.

“He was a little bit ataxic and wobbly in his back end but a lot of that was because he was happy to see me,” Dr. Adrian says with a huge smile. “This dog never would have walked without rehab. It’s a very cool feeling, that you played a part in that.”

Even with her impressive resume, Dr. Adrian is not legally allowed to practice in Ohio, among many other states. Legislation regarding veterinary practices specifies that unless she were a veterinarian or a veterinary technician, she wouldn’t be able to touch another person’s animal in her rehabilitation program.

The debate about what is the best way to pursue a career in canine rehabilitation hinges on this issue in particular. Dr. Adrian shares that there are two ways to approach the career: either get a degree in veterinary medicine and do a separate certification in canine rehabilitation or get a degree in physical therapy and pursue a certification after the fact.

Veterinary medicine is just that, medicine. An accredited program is packed to the brim with information that is vital for students to learn in order to properly treat and handle cases. There is some focus on more specialized work like rehabilitation but not nearly as in-depth as the physical therapy program is. Generally, veterinarians who are interested in rehabilitation would have to take a supplemental certification but they still do not get the extensive experience that comes from a PT degree.

Dr. Adrian pushes newcomers to pursue physical therapy over veterinary medicine. “You will get a better foundation to advance this field in physical therapy,” Dr. Adrian stresses. But there’s still not a way to do both.

It’s unclear at this point if there will ever be a program that merges the two into a veterinary physical therapist certification, though it would eliminate a lot of legislative issues with the practice.

Another issue with rehabilitation that Dr. Adrian focuses on at this point is that it’s not yet preventative, they focus on fixing the problem after the fact. “Why wait until it’s a problem?” Dr. Adrian asks. “Why not put our hands on these dogs and look for potential issues down the road and correct it before it becomes an issue?”

Dr. Adrian’s main goal is to start working with six to eight-week-old puppies when they’re still growing, find out what the owner’s main goal is for the dog and based on the animal’s confirmation and structure, determine what they would have to do to keep the animal comfortable and prevent or lessen the problem down the road.

She hopes to begin steering the rehabilitation program towards prevention. “That’s a huge passion of mine,” Dr. Adrian shares. “The way that rehab is now is we look at it after the fact, it’s a problem.”

In the mean time, Dr. Adrian continues to use her unique skill set to help as many patients and owners as she can so that dogs like Gunner and Izzy can have more comfortable and pain-free lives. “It’s just a love,” Dr. Adrian comments. “I’m the luckiest person in the world.”