Physical Therapy's Role in Dolphin Rehabilitation: A Case Report
IAAAM Archive
Julie A. Hobbs1; Darin W. Trees1; Tamara Renaud2; Celeste Weimer2
1The University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston, TX, USA; 2Texas Marine Mammal Stranding Network, Galveston, TX, USA



The purpose of this report is to describe the evaluation, intervention, and outcome of physical therapy intervention on a stranded bottlenose dolphin.


An approximately 1½-year-old male bottlenose dolphin, Tursiops truncatus, ("Cupid") stranded on the Texas Gulf coast in Brazoria County.


Cupid was rescued and removed from the beach by the Texas Marine Mammal Stranding Network and placed in the intensive care center at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) facility on Galveston Island. He was emaciated, unable to swim, and demonstrated abnormal posturing. Because he appeared to have musculoskeletal and/or neurological deficits, the State Operations Coordinator requested assistance from physical therapists. In addition, Cupid had a stress-induced gastric ulcer, right eye blindness, severe malnutrition, and an electrolyte imbalance.


Upon physical therapy evaluation, Cupid was found to have a well-healed 4-cm2 scar just caudal to his dorsal fin. He had full range of motion in his trunk, yet protective posturing to the right side, with his lateral spinal muscles shortened on the right and elongated on the left. Posturing was most apparent during episodes when Cupid rolled belly up with his blowhole underwater. He also demonstrated decreased right flipper active movement, although passive range of motion was within normal limits. On several occasions, superficial and deep tissue massage and warm towel packs were utilized to decrease apparent muscle spasms. After four days of supported swimming, Cupid began swimming independently. Although he continues to have episodes of abnormal behavior, Cupid will be released to a captive environment after months of rehabilitation.


Because dolphins communicate and maneuver themselves through the use of sonar, the use of therapeutic ultrasound was contraindicated. Furthermore, because a stranded dolphin is, by nature, in a stressful environment, other modalities such as electrical stimulation were also contraindicated. The involvement of physical therapy in the rehabilitation of a stranded dolphin may have helped to improve his functional outcome.


As efforts to rescue and rehabilitate injured marine mammals continue, the addition of physical therapists to the team may further enhance the rehab process. Physical therapists can apply knowledge of movement and intervention techniques to maximize the functional recovery of the injured marine mammal. The addition of physical therapy to Cupid's rehabilitation may have enhanced his functional outcome.

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Julie A. Hobbs

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