Hydrotherapy- Just keep swimming!

Written by Jennifer Rouse, DVM CCRP Sep 27 • 3 minute read

Today's blog post is all about hydrotherapy for pets! Humans have been using various forms of Hydrotherapy since before the Roman Empire, but veterinary use was adopted much more recently. The origins of hydrotherapy for dogs and even cats actually started in the horse racing world. The healing and conditioning benefits of hydrotherapy demonstrated in the horse racing industry prompted greyhound racing to adapt the practice for canine use. Soon after the first underwater treadmills for canines were manufactured and are commonly used for both canine athletes and pets today. 

How does Hydrotherapy work? 

The first benefit that all types of hydrotherapy offers is buoyancy. Depending on the type of hydrotherapy, it allows the patient anywhere from complete non weight bearing to only bearing a percent of their body weight. This can be especially effective when patients have difficulty supporting their weight while exercising weakened muscles or joints that would otherwise be painful under the full strain of their weight. 

Another benefit of hydrotherapy is that muscles have to work against resistance and surface tension when the patient is moving through water. Think about the last time you tried to run in hip deep water at the beach or a pool! Having to move through a substance that is more viscous than air takes a lot of energy and workouts in water often require less time than workouts on land. It is estimated that a 20 minute water workout is worth about 40 minutes of land based activity!

Temperature of the water can also be helpful for workouts, since warmer water helps to improve blood flow by dilating blood vessels. Arthritic pets often benefit from the improved circulation to help flush out byproducts of muscle metabolism and improve flexibility of connective tissues. 

Hydrostatic pressure can be helpful to decrease edema in swollen joints and soft tissues and even reduce pain by stimulating afferent sensory neurons. 

Free Swimming vs Underwater Treadmill

What about swimming? Is that the same as using an underwater treadmill (UWTM)? It turns out that adding a treadmill belt to underwater activity can change the properties of the exercise being undertaken. One example is that for rear limb exercises, UWTM is more effective at increasing the active range of motion of the limbs vs swimming. Contact of the back paws with the belt has its own resistance that allows the limb to be carried further into extension than swimming alone. Additionally, since there is a difference in weight bearing between the two media (non weight-bearing for swimming vs some percent of weight bearing for UWTM, either form of exercise may have distinct advantages over the other based on the patient's individual disability and rehab goals. Other considerations of which type of exercise to use are patient's willingness to participate (some dogs are averse to swimming but will learn to walk in an UWTM) and their enthusiasm when getting into water, making entry and exit of a pool risky for injuries if the patient is reckless in this area. 

When is Hydrotherapy not a good idea?

Some patients are not a good candidate for hydrotherapy of any type. These include temporary issues like immediately post op patients that may have an open wound or a surgical wound not healed enough yet for water exposure, acute injuries to areas of the body that are worsened by this type of therapy like iliopsoas injuries, and patients that are experiencing skin infections, vomiting, or diarrhea episodes. More severe contraindications to hydrotherapy include cardiac patients, uncontrolled seizure patients, and those pets that are significantly phobic about water. 

What are some conditions that benefit from Hydrotherapy?

Patients that suffer from arthritis, obesity, post injury or surgical patients with appropriate conditions, neuro patients that need proprioceptive and gait retraining, and athletes or other pets that require conditioning and fitness workouts. Not sure if hydrotherapy is right for your pet? Contact a rehab therapist today!

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