Canine hydrotherapy is rapidly increasing in popularity as a way of helping dogs to recover from injury, managing degenerative musculoskeletal disorders and improving fitness, as a Physiotherapist I find it a wonderful adjunct to land based exercises and manual therapy.

As part of my canine rehabilitation I have access to an underwater treadmill located on the Wirral, I find that by working the dog on land and in water the results can be quite amazing. What always amazes me is that owners of post-surgery, elderly and neurological dogs will sometimes think that hydrotherapy alone is enough. What they do not realise is that a fully qualified Physiotherapist can give exercises the owner can perform each day with their dog to aid their maintenance to a greater degree or speed up recovery.

Muscle atrophy occurs secondary to osteoarthritis and, to a smaller degree, as a result of normal ageing. Walking on an underwater treadmill once a week or more can help patients with muscle atrophy improve strength and mobility because of the increased resistance to forward motion. However frequent sessions, as often as every other day on land, can help build strength even faster.

As an owner you spend each day with your canine friend so doesn’t it stand to reason that you are best suited to work on your animal’s rehabilitation, it helps you as the owner become involved in your animals rehabilitation journey and gives you the ability to monitor improvement as the exercises are progressed.

Whilst when we think of canine hydrotherapy we may assume it relates to swimming in a pool, underwater treadmills are also being increasingly used to provide a controlled environment for dogs to walk in water. The benefits of the underwater treadmill include the ability to alter water depth and treadmill speed in order to better specific to the rehab needs of the individual animal.  The key properties of water are:

  • Resistance (pulling limbs through and out of the water helps strengthen atrophied/weakened muscles)
  • Buoyancy (support for weak patients and lessens the impact gravity has on arthritic/degenerative joints)
  • Controlled temperature (warmth to help soothe joints and muscles and improve circulation)
  • Hydrostatic pressure (pressure that water places on the body that helps circulatory problems and decrease swelling/edema)

A study by Monk et al (2006) found that underwater treadmill exercise caused an increased range of movement in the dog’s stifle joint (knee) and also increased the muscle circumference compared to normal lead walking on hard ground. The main benefits of the underwater treadmill are:

  • Extension of the limbs/joints is more complete than with swimming as the dog goes through the gait pattern on the treadmill
  • Control of how fast the patient moves depending on ability, fitness, size and strength.
  • Control of how much weight the patient bears as they are moving (height of water which affects buoyancy)
  • More balanced treatment for patients with multiple issues (multiple joints, muscle atrophy, etc.)
  • Support for weak patients, or dogs that are unwilling to use a limb find the buoyancy of the water supports their weight and provides comfort.
  • Less intimidating than swimming for patients who are fearful water (with the water treadmill, water fills slowly from the bottom).
  • Underwater treadmill walking allows a correct but exaggerated gait pattern, which improves joint flexion for injured or stiff arthritic joints.
  • The pain relief provided by warm water facilitates muscle relaxation and tendon stretch in situations in which splinting, protection, or contracture has occurred.
  • Gentle and low impact enough for post-surgical patients (2 weeks post op with sutures removed)
  • Gait abnormalities can be highlighted easily and your physiotherapist can provide facilitation or tailored resistance work to try to improve the gait pattern to restore normal movement.

In conclusion, I find that using the underwater treadmill as part of my multi-faceted ‘tool box’ can speed up the recovery of rehabilitation dogs and aid in maintenance of elderly or arthritic dogs.  BUT please do not discount the effect that you as an owner can have with your dog when armed with the correct knowledge and exercises, it really can make the world of difference!

Do you have a dog that you think would benefit from Physiotherapy or Hydrotherapy?

Post orthopaedic or neurological surgery?  Elderly or degenerative disease, or a working dog that you are looking to keep in their prime?

Get in touch to see if Wirral Vet Physio can help you and your best friend!

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