Nowadays, therapists, sport coaches and trainers understand the benefits of aquatic therapy for people. The benefits for dogs are also well documented and are strongly supported by the Canine Sport Medicine and Rehabilitation field of veterinary medicine. For dogs and cats, aquatic therapy refers mainly to therapy in an underwater treadmill (UWTM). This mode of therapy, where the patient enters a huge water tank with a treadmill at the bottom, was first developed for racing horses in the 1970s. It was later introduced as a physical therapy tool for people in the mid-1980s. Finally, it was developed for dogs at the end of the 1990s.
Advantages of UWTM
Why is the UWTM such an important tool for animal physical therapy? Therapy in a UWTM allows the performance of exercises for balance and movement safely and pain-free, well before the exercises can be attempted on land. For this reason, it is an ideal modality following orthopedic surgery, allowing the animal to return to normal functional mobility early in the postsurgical period. For neurological patients unable to walk, the UWTM therapy reduces the atrophying effects of immobility while facilitating proprioceptive gait training (awareness of one’s limbs in space), speeds gait training and improves the active range of motion of all joints as compared to land exercises. For arthritic senior animals, the UWTM therapy will improve balance and coordination while strengthening the muscles and enhancing cardio endurance. Athletic animals will strengthen muscles and improve their muscle and cardiopulmonary endurance, which translates to improved performance in competitions. The UWTM also represents an important part of an effective weight loss program for obese pets, raising their metabolic rate and improving their ability to burn fat. An advantage of the UWTM therapy is that it gives the therapist the option to change water depth, resistance and speed of the treadmill as needed. These variables allow a consistently progressive physical therapy plan to be implemented. In addition, the warm water temperature offers soothing muscle relaxation. Assistive devices and modalities — such as elastic bands, flippers, tail work, water currents though use of jets, manual therapies and massage, to name a few — are frequently employed while performing therapy in the UWTM.
How to Get Started with UWTM
Before considering therapy in a UWTM, your best option is to have your dog or cat evaluated by a licensed veterinarian certified in canine or feline rehabilitation, and with vast experience in UWTM therapy. This is critical in the case of geriatric animals and those with concurrent medical conditions. A complete medical history that includes medical diagnosis, prescribed medications, supplements, past surgeries and past injuries is required. A complete exam from the perspective of a physical therapist is essential. A clinical assessment and a water therapy customized plan will be formulated. Measurable outcome goals will be established. The animal will be reassessed periodically, and the water therapy will be modified according to the progress until the rehabilitation goals are reached. Each therapeutic program is individualized and cannot be preformulated. A maintenance program can be initiated once the water rehabilitation goals have been reached or as a way of cross-training. UWTM is a valid feline physical therapy modality only for those cats that are comfortable in water. The properties of water (buoyancy, hydrostatic pressure, fluid dynamics and resistance) make UWTM therapy an excellent tool for achieving a pet’s physical therapy goals and maintaining total body fitness.
UWTM therapy has been an integral part of our animal physical therapy services in South Miami for 18 years now. Please visit us on social media (Facebook and Instagram at @DrMartavet) to see our underwater treadmills and other state-of-the-art modalities that help dogs and cats live better.