Hydrotherapy - by Dr. Elizabeth Jobe, DVM, CCRT, cVMA
What is hydrotherapy for animals? Hydrotherapy, or aquatic therapy, is physical therapy and exercise in warm water including swimming, pool exercises, and walking in the underwater treadmill. So why is this important? It is estimated that up to 40% of all pets have arthritis, and most of this percentage are our middle aged and older pets. By utilizing our heated underwater treadmill, we are able to provide an extended level of care for our patients whether for exercise with minimal weight bearing on painful and arthritic joints, endurance conditioning for athletes, post-operative muscle strengthening and gait retraining, and even weight loss. Warm water has the benefits of increased blood flow to muscles, increased joint flexibility, and decreased pain. Believe it or not, aquatic therapy is not just for dogs, and there are cats that will swim and walk on the treadmill too!
In the underwater treadmill, we can adjust the water level for changes in buoyancy and therefore the amount of weight bearing on different joints. The higher the water level, the less weight the body is bearing on the joints when walking. This reduces pain on joints while enhancing their range of motion. Animals that will not bear much weight on a limb or walk very stiff can gait more normally and use the joint in the intended range of motion with hydrotherapy. With the body surrounded by water, animals have increased confidence while standing and balancing to try to walk again and use limbs after injury and surgery. The water pressure also helps to reduce swelling in limbs, and the water resistance and surface tension are important for muscle strengthening. Just think about how tiring it is to walk fast through shallow water at the beach!
Swimming and the underwater treadmill have different advantages and purposes in a rehabilitation program. The speed of the treadmill can be adjusted as well as the length of time for the work-out depending on the strength of the patient. Walking in the underwater treadmill for 5 minutes is compared to a 15 minute walk on land because of increased energy output, and it has the benefit of greater heart and lung effort and endurance. Swimming allows a much greater total range of motion in all joints, and this is mostly attributed to increased flexion. The underwater treadmill allows a similar increase in total range of motion, but allows for better extension and slightly less flexion for exercise when compared to swimming. Also, fun exercises can be performed in the pool using boogie boards and toys that focus on specific muscle groups. Therefore, a rehabilitation examination with an appropriate diagnosis will determine which type of hydrotherapy is best for your pet based on their joint restrictions.
Some owners are concerned that their pet may not like getting into the underwater treadmill, but we are always available to get in the water with them for at least the first few sets of sessions if needed and indefinitely for our patients that require additional support and training. Since the water fills from the bottom of the floor and up on the body in the treadmill, most all patients do not get scared or nervous. This is much less frightening for animals than trying to lead them into a standing body of water. Once the treadmill slowly starts moving and the speed begins increasing, the animals are distracted by the task at hand and quickly relax. A little positive reinforcement (and treats) goes a long way too! At PAWS, our hydrotherapy improves our patients' quality of life because they generally love getting in the water and we all have fun.