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Canine Hydrotherapy – Utilizing an Underwater Treadmill (UWTM)

By Dr. Curt Stonecipher

Canine hydrotherapy is nothing new to Veterinary Medicine but it for us at Dakota Hills Veterinary Clinic.  I completed my Canine Rehabilitation Therapist certification in October 2015 and we have recently added an UWTM.

What is canine hydrotherapy?Dog (Hope) walking in treadmill 10-16

Hydrotherapy in an underwater treadmill uses the inherent properties of water, or the principles of relative density, buoyancy, hydrostatic pressure, and resistance to provide its therapeutic benefits in a safe environment.  Pain is one of the most consistent ailments of dogs that benefit from rehab.  Utilizing an underwater treadmill can allow movement achieving prescriptive exercises that are functional, mechanically correct, and muscle challenging without being painful.  Buoyancy reduces the load each joint is required to bear, warm water relaxes muscles and is soothing for many conditions, and hydrostatic pressure provides a swaddling effect that can increase the patient’s confidence in the immersed body part. It can also improve mobility and flexibility, allowing patients to recover from surgery or an injury quicker.

Benefits for Canines and Small Animals

Because of the success of hydrotherapy with humans, veterinarians are gaining confidence in and observing similar positive results with animals. Specific interest in canine rehabilitation started with the horse racing industry and branched out to include racing and performance dogs and then house pets. Rehab therapy for the canine patient in an underwater treadmill is effective at improving strength, muscular endurance, cardiovascular endurance, range of motion, agility, and the mental psyche. It is also an excellent form of exercise for weight loss and older patients as the buoyancy property of water reduces the stress on bones and joints.

Many conditions benefit from hydrotherapy, but especially those disorders in which an animal is reluctant to use a limb due to lack of strength, decreased range of motion, or non-weight bearing status.  A dog that will not use a limb on land is much more likely to use it in the water.

Some of the cases we have used the UWTM for and seen improvement include:

  • Post-surgical cranial cruciate ligament rupture (both TPLO and extracapsular)
  • Medial luxating patella (kneecap)
  • Iliopsoas muscle strain (muscle of the lower back/hip)
  • Intervertebral disc disease (herniated disk)
  • Meningomyelitis (inflammation of the spinal cord)
  • Post-surgical fracture with proprioception loss (nerve damage causing feet to be misplaced)
  • Fibrocartilaginous embolism with secondary unilateral loss of proprioception (blockage of the blood vessels of the spinal cord resulting in nerve damage causing a foot to be misplaced)
  • Bilateral femoral head and neck osteopathy (surgical removal of a portion of the bone in the hip joint to correct severe hip displacement)
  • Degenerative myelopathy (progressive disease of the spinal cord)
  • Hip osteoarthritis (arthritis)

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