Underwater treadmill provides more benefits than going for a swim

Posted at 12:15 AM, Jul 14, 2013
and last updated 2014-07-11 11:40:01-04

Physical rehabilitation for dogs and cats has become more available over the past decade. Several veterinary schools offer post-graduate training in therapeutic massage, spinal manipulative therapies, acupuncture, and physical therapy that includes swim and underwater treadmill conditioning.

In 2004, three years after I completed post-graduate studies in veterinary physical therapy, I decided to add an underwater treadmill to create the first pet rehabilitation center in western Pennsylvania.

This care would prove to help ease suffering and extend the life expectancy of many injured and arthritic animals.

After researching animal swim and water treadmills, I learned the most effective therapy for pets is provided by underwater treadmills. The treadmills, in which a technician can be in the tank during therapy, offer the most customized benefits, including:

l Rehab for spinal injuries and disc disease.

l Post-op rehab.

l Conditioning and weight loss.

l Sports conditioning.

l Treatment of muscle tears and strains.

l Rehab for cruciate and ligament tears.

l Skin wounds and deep-tissue injuries.

I chose to add a treadmill with jets for hydrotherapy, an incline for better muscle building and safety features necessary for animals who might feel nervous in the unit. It included a holding tank with preheated water, a gentle filling system and room for a technician to stay in the tank with the smallest cats and the biggest dogs.

The benefits of these types of units outweigh the benefits of swimming in a lake or pool. In both cases, pets receive support through buoyancy in water and improved blood flow to injured tissues. The difference is that while swimming, pets can cheat and doggy paddle or continue to underuse an injured limb, or worse still, arch their backs and cause more muscle strain to injured areas.

In contrast, an underwater treadmill, pets have all feet on a moving belt. A technician can control the pet’s speed and limb placement and assure pets use every limb. Staff can lift a limb and force use of the injured limb, alter water level to provide more or less support as the pet walks, and gradually increase the speed and resistance.

Pets gain more than just exercise, as we can help pets learn to use injured limbs again. We can even add an incline to help them build more muscle tone in the atrophied (shrunken) support muscles.

My favorite improvement is that pets improve proprioception after just one session. This means that pets relearn where and how to place their feet more correctly while in the tank, and when they come out, continue to remember their rehabbed skill on the ground. None of these benefits occurs from swimming alone.

One of the best examples of a successful rehabilitation I saw in my office is Ollie, an 18-month-old white standard poodle. He had undergone two surgeries at a referral surgical hospital in Akron, Ohio.

His owners were concerned that in spite of bone surgery to correct a growth defect in his front leg, he was still in pain and unable to use his leg.

One of the two long bones in his front leg had stopped growing, while the other continued growth. This process made his elbow and leg twist while he walked and eventually caused enough elbow pain that he needed surgery to stop the elbow from becoming more deformed.

The surgeon performed two corrective surgeries, but Ollie’s right leg (the healthy limb) continued to grow, after the left leg stopped lengthening. This created a 1 1/2-inch difference between his front legs and a pronounced limp.

When I first examined Ollie, he could barely put weight on the left leg and required pain medication. I measured Ollie’s range of motion and recommended eight sessions in our underwater treadmill along with therapeutic laser treatments.

In Ollie’s first session, I analyzed his movement at a slow pace and created a swim schedule and prescription for therapy. I was skeptical about how much improvement we might get, because Ollie’s front legs were so different in length. His range of motion in his left front leg was only 55 degrees, while his right leg had a range of 130 degrees.

I am happy to report that after eight weeks of treatments, Ollie is now fully using both front legs, and his range of motion in both elbows has improved. His left leg now bends and extends equal to the right front limb with a range of 135 degrees in both front legs. Ollie runs and plays pain-free, like a young dog.

Dr. Cynthia Maro is a veterinarian at the Ellwood Animal Hospital in Ellwood City and the Chippewa Animal Hospital in Chippewa Township. She writes a biweekly column on pet care and health issues. If you have a topic you’d like addressed, please email ellwood