By Dr. Erica Kirsch
Most people don’t know what canine physical therapy is—and if they do, their perception is likely that physical therapy equates to the underwater treadmill. The underwater treadmill can, in fact, be a great tool for strengthening muscles and improving endurance. Some diagnoses that can benefit from hydrotherapy include: neurological disease, arthritis, cranial cruciate ligament tears, elbow dysplasia, hip dysplasia, tendon injuries, and fracture repairs. While many dogs can benefit, it should be noted that the underwater treadmill is not appropriate for all dogs and is not appropriate at all stages of recovery.
The underwater treadmill has a few properties that make it different from walking on land. For the purpose of rehab, buoyancy and resistance are the two properties of water which we can manipulate to change the effects of the underwater treadmill. Buoyancy is the tendency to float in water. The higher the water height, the more buoyancy the dog will have. Resistance is the force of water against movement. In other words, it is much harder to walk through water than it is to walk through air. The height of the water can be adjusted to change the resistance. We can also manipulate the speed of the treadmill, the time, the direction, and the grade of incline or decline.
By manipulating these factors we can target specific goals with the underwater treadmill. For example, an older dog with osteoarthritis will likely do better with the water high, to maximize buoyancy to offload the joints. This will allow the dog to walk with less joint pain and strengthen their muscles through the resistance of the water. We may start at a slower speed and shorter time and progress to a faster speed for a longer time as the dog improves.
The underwater treadmill can also be very helpful for dogs with neurological conditions. The sensation of the water flowing against the limbs as the dog walks provide increased sensory input to the dog’s system which can help with balance and recovery. The buoyancy of the water allows the therapist to help move the limbs in a normal gait pattern to help animals learn how to walk again.
Hydrotherapy is great for strengthening specific muscle groups. The muscles that work the hardest in the underwater treadmill are the muscles moving the limbs forward against the resistance of the water. Unfortunately the muscles that do the opposite, do not benefit as much from the underwater treadmill—and these muscles can be crucial for recovery. The glutes and hamstrings, specifically, do not benefit as much from the underwater treadmill as the hip flexors. This is one example of why the underwater treadmill should not be the ONLY form of exercise. Every dog should have a comprehensive program that may include hydrotherapy, but also addresses all weak muscle groups and progresses as the patient’s function improves.
The underwater treadmill is a great tool in the canine rehab world, but it is important to remember that it is one of many treatment options. There are hundreds of other exercises or modalities that can be utilized. That’s why at Walking Paws Rehab we do a comprehensive assessment so we can come up with the best plan tailored to your pet.