underwater treadmill hydrotherapycanine hydrotherapy in heated poolThe Role Of  Aqua Therapy In Rehabilitation

Aqua therapy, the use of a pool or underwater treadmill, is an important and well utilized modality in many of the rehabilitation programs at our facility. Why does it play such a large role in therapy for most of our recovering or arthritic patients? Well, for quite a few reasons. The buoyancy of water acts to reduce the amount of weight pressing down on painful joints or sore muscles during exercise or movement. Swimming in a pool can allow weightless exercise for the painful animal. Depending on the level of water that the patient is walking in, the underwater treadmill can reduce the amount of a pet’s body weight bearing down on joints by up to 62%. The hydrostatic pressure from the surrounding water will act to reduce tissue edema and minimize swelling in the lower extremities during exercise. Hydrostatic pressure will also work to decrease the perception of pain during exercise and allow for better movement of a problem area than when out of the water. Lastly, the resistance from moving through water will work to strengthen muscles and increase overall cardiovascular fitness.

In summary,  aqua therapy is a great tool to:

1. Strengthen muscles, build endurance

2. Encourage better range of motion of joints

3. Promote a happy and confident pet through independent, pain free exercise.

Is The Pool The Best Choice For My Pet?

At the Rehabilitation Center, we have a heated pool for our patients to use. The weightless experience of swimming can be easier to maneuver for some of our more painful patients. An older, unstable patient or paralyzed pet may be a stronger participant in the pool where they don’t have to worry about falling over. And for the stubborn patient that refuses to use an injured limb during recovery, there is no choice but to swim when your feet don’t touch the bottom and you find yourself in the middle of the pool. Most dogs have excellent front limb movement in the pool. This is why I sometimes go straight to the pool if I have a pet with a painful elbow or shoulder. Usually I can encourage greater front limb range of motion in the pool and loosen up tight muscles. 

Swimming Has It’s Pros And Cons, However

Pets will paddle with a different pattern of limb use in the pool compared to when they are moving on land. This becomes an important factor, for example, when working with patients that are learning to walk again. The range of motion of some joints is different when swimming when compared to land use. Pets will often have good knee flexion but poor knee and hip extension. We have found that some dogs will tuck their hind limbs close to their body when swimming. This poor hind limb movement reduces overall joint range of motion as well as potential for muscle strengthening. One thing to consider in the pool is the lack of control over the patient’s exercise effort (frantic swimmer, floater, turtle crawl?). The only thing that a therapist can really do is manage the amount of time swimming. Finally, swimming can be scary. A thrashing, panicking pet can be dangerous to post op recovery for orthopedic and neurological procedures.

How The Underwater Treadmill Works

The underwater treadmill is another aquatic option for hydrotherapy. Patients enter a chamber that will then fill with warm water to the level that is desired. In most cases, the heated water will usually be set to fill to the level of the stifle or just below hip joint of the pet. The belt will then begin moving and (hopefully) the patient will start walking for a set period of time.

Why Choose The Underwater Treadmill?

This modality is very beneficial to a wide variety of conditions addressed in a rehab setting. The UWTM encourages walking or jogging with a more normal gait pattern. This is important to the pet with a shortened stride or skipping gait. An animal recovering from disk surgery or neurological injury, while supported by the water and a therapist, will use the UWTM to relearn the pattern of how to place one foot in front of the other. There is important proprioception (body awareness) feedback from the feet to the brain when walking on the belt in the UWTM. This is beneficial to all patients, from those recovering from orthopedic procedures to the geriatric patient trying to stay on their feet for just a little longer. In the UWTM, the moving belt encourages greater knee and hip extension which can be very helpful in recovery from post-operative procedures such as an FHO, pelvic fracture healing, or managing hip dysplasia. The final consideration when thinking about using the UWTM would be control of conditions. With the UWTM, the rehabilitation therapist can control many environmental and situational factors that impact exercise. The level of the water is programed specifically for the size and needs of each patient. The belt speed can be lowered or increased depending on how the pet is managing at each session. If a pet panics or refuses to participate, it is easier to control them in the underwater treadmill and avoid thrashing.

Things To Consider With the UWTM

What are the cons of the UWTM? There are a few. Many owners are concerned about their pet’s reaction to water, but most times it is the moving floor that is the scariest part. Some patients will refuse to walk while others aim for any way off the belt altogether. I have had a few older, unstable patients that struggled in the treadmill to stay on their feet and walk in any way. In this case, we sacrificed the proprioception feedback of the UWTM for the confidence building experience of the pool.

It Is Good To Have Options To Choose From in Pet Rehabilitation

While rehabilitation is more than just aqua therapy, there is no denying that a pool or UWTM play a huge role in helping our patients achieve their rehab goals. Not every patient will benefit from aqua therapy, but it is nice to have the option available. Now the next question is: Can cats participate in aqua therapy? The answer is “yes”, but that is a story for another time.