Pioneering Bear Physiotherapy trial outstanding success!

19 November 2020

Animals Asia’s bear sanctuaries in Vietnam and China are true havens for their lucky residents, but last month the Vietnam sanctuary became even more special with the exciting launch of a bear physiotherapy programme!

Back in July this year, a proposal was put forward to run a six-week pilot which would see our bears undergo a course of physiotherapy sessions with the aim of improving any restrictions in movement and ultimately, the bears’ quality of life.

As a result of being held in restricted and cramped conditions and receiving inadequate nutrition on bile farms the rescued bears eventually develop musculoskeletal problems, which cause pain and restrict movement. Some of the bears we rescue spend decades in this unnatural confinement, often from the time they were cubs and sadly these problems are degenerative.

For our bears to truly thrive and live as close as possible to how they would naturally in the wild, they need to develop and express innate behaviours such as foraging and playing, which require a certain amount of dexterity and poise. This is where physiotherapy comes in!

We’ve all heard of the benefits of physiotherapy for humans, well it works pretty much the same for bears! Once the innovative pilot was approved, the sanctuary staff wasted no time in creating a host of enrichment activities and training exercises to develop the bears’ range of movements, encouraging them to reach, stretch and bend for objects. 

The two bears selected to take part in the pilot were Milagro, a 16-year old Asiatic black bear (moon bear) who arrived at the sanctuary in 2011 and Arthur, an 18-year old Asiatic black bear who arrived in 2015. Milagro has osteoarthritis and has recently developed an abnormal hind limb gait, while Arthur also has osteoarthritis and restricted mobility.

Our Bear and Vet team designed the physiotherapy pilot programme in collaboration with Australia-based Veterinary Physiotherapist Brooke Williams whose support we are hugely grateful for. Over the course of six weeks, Arthur and Milagro spent time in the dedicated physio den finding innovative ways to reach the food-covered objects that had been dotted around the room, climbing the many structures the staff had built, and splashing about in the hydrotherapy pool.

Other enrichment items included:

  • hanging nylon web baskets
  • hanging hessian sacks
  • hanging bamboo feeders
  • steps
  • puzzle feeder ball

As much as possible our Bear Carers and Vet Team work together to encourage bears to participate in their own health care and treatments. This means giving them as much autonomy within the process and using positive reinforcement to make the process as pleasurable and stress free as possible for the bears.

Resident Veterinary Surgeon Kate Shipton, Senior Bear Team Manager Sarah van Herpt, Bear Team Supervisor Hiep Van Nguyen and Bear Team Leaders observed Arthur and Milagro before, during and after the pilot and noticed some interesting and exciting changes …

Both Arthur and Milagro’s dexterity, strength and confidence improved over the six weeks, with the team noticing that the bears can now perform activities they couldn’t manage before the sessions, and an increase in the amount they move around their enclosures. 

Figure 1: Comparison of different postures displayed during observations prior to and after six weeks of physiotherapy for Milagro

Possibly the most exciting and heart-warming outcome is that both Arthur and Milagro now appear to be more interested in and willing to explore their surroundings, venturing further into their enclosures, and actively foraging for their food and treats more than they did before.

Figure 2: Comparison of different behaviours displayed during observations prior to and after six weeks of physiotherapy for Milagro

Resident Veterinary Surgeon Kate Shipton said of the programme:

“Having seen that the physiotherapy programme appears to have improved the quality of life for these two bears, it’s really exciting to be able to expand the initiative to include other resident bears. Our plans for future physio programmes as ever will be led by the bears individual needs on a case-by-case basis.

“Following continued collaboration with Veterinary Physiotherapist Brooke Williams, the aims of Arthur’s future therapy will be based around further developing the strength within his hind limbs to allow him to stand bipedally more freely and if possible, without support. The aims of Milagro’s future therapy will be based around further developing the strength and mobility within his forelimbs.”

Senior Bear Team Manager Sarah van Herpt added:

“For Milagro the physio den will be modified to encourage behaviours such as crawling into a tunneled area and adding resistance type activities, for example having hanging toys attached with a bungee cord that requires him to pull the items down as well as reach. We hope that by providing more challenging structures to encourage new behaviours the bears will continue to be mentally as well as physically stimulated. Hopefully the novelty of new exercises will keep them engaged and active.”

It’s fair to say that the pilot was a great success and the sanctuary staff are thrilled to have seen such marked improvements in Arthur and Milagro’s movements. The physiotherapy programme will be one of the many ways in which Animals Asia supports rescued bears throughout the rest of their lives. We are determined, with your support, to do all we can to fix these broken bears to enable them to live happy, healthy and enjoyable lives. After what they’ve been through, it’s the least we can do.

Read more:
Staff at our Vietnam Bear Rescue Centre perform the first ‘in-house’ root canal surgery on a resident bear!
Animals Asia promotes excellence in veterinary practice in China