So hydrotherapy seems to be all the rage for physical rehabilitation in pets. So what is it all about and can it really live up to it’s reputation? And what are the different kinds of hydrotherapy and what do they each do? These are all great questions and ones you may be pondering…
First let’s talk about the underwater treadmill. A very high tech and fancy piece of equipment. But is it worth all the hype? My answer is yes, it certainly can be depending on what you are using it for. Does it work for all problems and conditions? Definitely not, but it can be a great adjunct to a well thought out and administered rehab program.
The buoyancy that the water provides lessens the weight and forces going through the joints so it is an excellent choice for dogs with arthritis or painful joints. It is also a good choice for weight loss as the caloric expenditure is greater for walking in water than on land.
Have you ever tried running or walking fast through thigh or waist deep water? It is surprisingly difficult! Another great use for the underwater treadmill is providing resistance to muscles and increasing strength. It also can apply appropriate forces to the muscle when in the rebuilding phase of injury.
The animal is actually walking while in the water treadmill and all four limbs are going through their full range of motion that they would go through while walking on land. Therefore the muscles are having to work harder through their whole functional range which is imperative when building strength and recovering from injury. Other hydrotherapy such as swimming does not allow for this functional strengthening.
The underwater treadmill environment is great for carefully working on and improving gait (gait training) after injury. The well trained therapist can stand in the water and assist the pet with the correct movements and help retrain him to use the leg correctly and efficiently. This can be key to returning the pet to his fullest potential!
One of the most satisfying and amazing benefits of the underwater treadmill is allowing a pet to walk that cannot walk on land. I have seen many a dog that has suffered from a disc injury and has had back surgery. They are unable to walk on land, but we put them into the treadmill, add some water, and the buoyancy and the stimulation of the belt moving under their feet allows them to walk! This is an amazing and encouraging time for pet and owner! With practice and healing, the dog will often be able to transition to walking again on land.
Swimming can also be a great tool when used appropriately and directed by a well trained and certified canine rehabilitation therapist. Swimming is a less controlled activity, it is difficult to control the velocity of the kicks and leg movements when a dog swims. The limbs also go through less of their functional range of motion so is less transferrable to their normal lives on land. The legs generally stay in a more flexed position and so may be missing an important range of strengthening. Swimming does burn calories and can be a great option for general fitness and conditioning and is great for arthritis as well. It is also often easy to access in good weather and can be a great option for people wanting to get outside and have fun with their dogs. When being treated for an injury or condition though, each session should be directed and overseen by the certified therapist.
In summary, hydrotherapy is often an excellent choice when considering your options for physical rehabilitation. Consider what your goals are, and what type of condition is affecting your pet when deciding on which type of hydrotherapy to pursue. As with any therapeutic intervention, any type of water therapy should be respected as a powerful and invaluable tool to treat many injuries. And should only be used with supervision and direction of a certified rehabilitation specialist.