A Fitness Rx for Your Pets? Underwater Treadmill Therapy

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Dogs and cats up to their necks in water while walking on treadmills? This isn’t a performance act. It’s rehabilitation. Some veterinary practices, especially those that specialize in rehabilitation, are using underwater treadmills to help keep pets healthy. One such pet is Puddin, a lovable, overweight Labrador Retriever that was diagnosed with hip dysplasia.

When Puddin was first brought into the clinic, she weighed 70 pounds, was unable to stand without assistance, and had begun to refuse to walk even just 20 feet. Her owners were concerned about her quality of life. But before her surgeon would perform the procedure necessary to reduce her pain, she needed to lose 10 pounds. So Puddin began a rehabilitation program during which she came in two days a week for therapeutic exercise, including aquatic therapy on an underwater treadmill.

Why Walk in Water?

Aquatic therapy uses the therapeutic properties of water to provide appropriate exercises for strength, range of motion, and endurance while reducing the risk of injury. It is beneficial for soft-tissue injuries, osteoarthritis, postoperative fracture care, muscle weakness, neurologic impairment, geriatric care, postoperative amputee care and weight loss.

The thermal effects of water help relax dogs and even cats. Warm water also reduces pets’ pain, increases blood flow and makes connective tissue more flexible. This allows for deeper stretches and exercises with wider range of motion. The soothing effects of warmth also may increase pets’ willingness to exert effort and, thus, speed their recoveries.

Many people opt for water aerobics and water therapy because these activities provide a low-impact way to exercise. Pets enjoy the same benefits from exercising on underwater treadmills, also known as hydro-treadmills. Pet rehabilitation therapists use the buoyant property of water to increase or decrease the amount of weight bearing on cats’ and dogs’ joints and bones. The therapist raises or lowers the treadmill’s water level depending on how little or how much weight bearing is needed to strengthen the pet or return it to as normal a gait pattern as possible. Reducing the weight bearing for portly pets is an especially beneficial way to help them increase their strength and endurance — and lose weight — without stressing their joints.

Another unique effect of the underwater treadmill includes the ability to vary the speed of exercise. The therapist chooses the starting speed based on how long the pets’ legs are and how much exertion is appropriate. A smaller pet would need a slower pace, as would a pet with serious limitations. Faster speeds are appropriate for pets with longer legs and those that are advanced in their rehabilitation or conditioning, such as athletic dogs. While size determines starting speed, the rate of exercise is dictated by the animal’s physical condition and needs.

Getting Started

Some pets may be afraid of the water initially, but most are willing to exercise on an underwater treadmill if they are slowly introduced to the equipment and the water. In general, therapists place dogs on the treadmill before beginning to fill the tank.

Cats require special techniques. First, the environment must be quiet and relaxed. Before placing the cat on the treadmill, the therapist may activate the belt and raise the water level to the desired height. The water temperature is usually set between 88° and 92° Fahrenheit. The therapist will often enter the tank first and remain with the cat during the entire exercise to guide and support it.

Rehabilitation is a relatively new segment of veterinary medicine. While more and more practices are offering rehabilitation services, your veterinarian might not yet use an underwater treadmill. If this is the case and your veterinarian thinks your cat or dog would benefit from therapy, your veterinarian will refer you to an appropriate facility.

Enjoying the Benefits

Underwater treadmill therapy is a smart complement to medical treatment. It may not be recommended for patients with cardiac or respiratory disease because the increased water resistance can be stressful. It also may not be an option for pets with skin sutures from recent surgery. As with any new treatment, patients should be thoroughly evaluated by their veterinarian before beginning therapy, and their health and condition should be monitored regularly.

For the right pets, like Puddin, underwater treadmills are just what the doctor ordered. Her first day on the treadmill, Puddin could walk only for three minutes in hip-level water at 0.4 mph before becoming exhausted. After 20 weeks, her stride length increased by 16 cm, her muscle mass in both rear legs increased by 7 cm, and she was able to rise without assistance, climb stairs, and take walks with her owner again. She was trotting in the treadmill at 2.3 mph for 45 minutes without any signs of fatigue. Puddin also lost 15 pounds, and, since she was no longer showing signs of pain, her owners elected not to pursue surgery at that time.

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