Steve Jacobs leads one of his first patients of the day – a 4-year-old boxer named Riley – to an underwater treadmill for one of his twice-a-week physical therapy sessions.
A dog barely able to limp outside to his own yard a few months ago, Riley is soon trotting steadily through hip-high water, working his recently repaired knee and well on the road back to the active dog he used to be.
Jacobs, a Savoy veterinarian, remembers a time when a dog with a knee injury like Riley's would have been all washed up.
Today, he says, many dogs are undergoing surgery and rehabilitation just like people do, and are often back in action in months.
"That's so great to see," he says.
Jacobs has a general veterinary practice for cats and dogs, but his specialty – canine sports medicine – combines his current profession as a veterinarian and his former one as a physical therapist.
Working with dogs can be more challenging than working with people, he's found, because animals can't tell him about their pain.
But dogs can also make better rehab patients, Jacobs says, because they're so willing to do what they're asked to get better. In fact, some owners tell him their dogs are so excited on their way to water therapy they start barking in the car.
"The dogs are always motivated," he says.
Jacobs worked for 10 years as a physical therapist before going back to school to become a vet.
A Belleville native, he grew up the youngest of four children in a family that always had several Labrador retrievers.
His father, a supervisor with Monsanto, and his mother, a pediatric nurse, spent many weekends involved in field trials with the family dogs, and Jacobs now has four Labs of his own (plus a cat and two horses).
Jacobs says he grew up with an interest in animals and sports, working for a local veterinarian and playing football and basketball in high school.
When it came time for college, he chose physical therapy because it was such a hot field, but over the next decade he realized it wasn't quite the right one for him.
"I always yearned to be a veterinarian," he says.
When his mother fell ill in 1997 and died two years later, he decided it was time for him to make a move.
"I realized life was short," he says.
Jacobs came to the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine for his degree and started out with a home-based dog rehabilitation practice called SportsVet in 2003. A year later, he opened his own clinic in the same building that houses Animal Outfitters feed and supply store in Savoy.
Jacobs said some of his rehab clients are canine athletes brought from as far away as Chicago and St. Louis, but he also enjoys helping the average family dog that might have gotten hurt just tearing around the backyard.
Common dog injuries
One of the injuries Jacobs sees the most in dogs is the one Riley had in his knee and also an injury common in football players – a tear in the cranial cruciate ligament. Some dogs are predisposed to this condition, and others wind up with it as a result of a trauma, such as leaping to catch a ball and making a bad landing.
Jacobs performs a procedure called a tibial plateau leveling osteotomy that changes the mechanics of the injured knee, and then sets dogs on a course of physical therapy.
Riley's owner, Russell Tarter of Urbana, says his dog underwent TPLO surgery a few months ago, after he suddenly began holding up his right rear leg and having a hard time walking.
"He just started limping on it, and eventually stopped using it," he says. "Dr. Jacobs said it was probably a gradual tear over time."
The surgery and therapy on the underwater treadmill are doing the trick for Riley, who is already taking walks again, Tarter says.
"He's almost back to 100 percent now," he adds.
Jacobs also offers another procedure to evaluate if a dog is predisposed to a common condition called hip dysplasia, which causes severe pain in the hip joint and can progress to arthritis. The procedure can be done on a puppy as young as 4 months and can minimize the progression of the disease and the pain as the dog ages.
Jacobs also focuses on weight management for overweight dogs. Some half to three-quarters of the dogs he sees are at least somewhat overweight. And he wants to help them shed those extra pounds, because leaner dogs live longer.
Mark Fisher, owner of Animal Outfitters, thinks highly of Jacobs' skills as a vet, especially because Jacobs pulled one of his dogs through a severe infection. What's more, he says, Jacobs is a good communicator with pet owners.
Dianne Cherry of Arcola, whose two dogs are both patients of Jacobs, can attest to that.
"We just fell in love with Dr. Jacobs," she says. "He listens to you and he has all the time to answer your questions and explain things."
Cherry said she first brought one of her dogs, suffering from severe hip dysplasia, to Jacobs; the dog is no longer on pain medicine and is moving well.
Her other dog developed pain in one leg, and underwent TPLO surgery and rehab two years ago.
Today, Cherry adds, "you can't tell anything was ever wrong with her."
Dr. Marcella Ridgway, an internal medicine specialist at the UI veterinary college, says she's seen a growing awareness of canine sports medicine and what it can achieve as interest has grown in competitive athletic activities for dogs, such as flyball.
"We're seeing injuries in dogs that are already well-conditioned, but we also see problems in dogs that may be asked to do a fairly strenuous activity that they haven't been conditioned for," she says.
Ridgway says it would be overly optimistic to think every dog that undergoes a repair for an injury is going to return to full-performance level; no surgery comes with a healing guarantee. But she has seen the outcomes improving due to improvements in techniques.
She also sees the potential for more growth in canine sports medicine, "given the growing interest in performance sports for dogs among pet owners."
For Jacobs, the reward in his field comes from the strong bond that can exist between people and their pets, and being able to help those pets live longer, active lives.
"I couldn't be happier," he says. "I love doing this."