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Benefits of Hydrotherapy

by Dr. Annette Richmond, DVM

dog on underwater treadmill

Owing to the success documented in human physical therapy, hydrotherapy has been integrated into veterinary medicine for more than 100 years. The earliest patients were horses, as these were highly valued animals and needed to maintain peak physical condition and have an expeditious recovery after injury.
Next, the veterinary profession integrated hydrotherapy into practice to include canine patients (and occasionally cats). Today, hydrotherapy has become one of the most important modalities within the quickly expanding and highly specialized field of canine rehabilitation. Veterinarians, registered veterinary technicians, and human physical therapists can complete a certification program to become a certified canine rehabilitation practitioner. These practitioners then go into the field to help animals with many neurologic or musculoskeletal disorders.

Hydrotherapy uses an underwater treadmill, a swimming pool, or a whirlpool. In either case, the animal is supervised in the water at all times. Frequently, animals (especially cats and small dogs) will wear a life vest specifically designed for this activity, especially if they are neurologically or physically challenged. Normally, a ramp or a lift is available to help pets in and out of the water, which helps reduce any anxiety they may have entering the water. An underwater treadmill has a set of jets that increase resistance against the animal, different speeds at which the treadmill belt can rotate, and the treadmill belt can be set on an incline to increase the difficulty of the exercise. Frequently a patient will benefit from using all three types of water modalities; the underwater treadmill, the whirlpool, and the swimming pool. Although each type of hydrotherapy has its own specific therapeutic effects, there are many benefits that all hydrotherapy treatments give a patient.

acupuncture supplementary picture

Hydrotherapy exercise improves muscular strength and endurance, cardiorespiratory endurance, and range of motion. Hydrotherapy also re-educates muscles, stimulates new nerve pathways, and improves psychological well-being. Postoperative patients can quickly return to exercise after surgery using hydrotherapy in their postoperative period. Animals treated with hydrotherapy gain these benefits without having to endure the pain they normally would feel were they not supported by the warm water.
The benefits of hydrotherapy are due to many different effects that water has on the body. First, the warm temperature of the water relaxes muscles, decreases pain, reduces muscle spasm, increases circulation, and increases the range of motion of the limbs. Hydrotherapy units and therapeutic swimming pools are generally kept between 85 and 93 degrees Fahrenheit. Animals that are not very mobile with severe conditions are treated in warmer water, and animals that are stronger and exerting themselves more, must be in slightly cooler water to avoid overheating.

Second, the buoyancy of the water greatly reduces the impact on the joints and provides assistance to animals with poor balance and coordination due to neurologic or musculoskeletal disorders. Animals with partial paralysis are more willing to walk in the water than on land owing to this buoyancy. In an underwater treadmill, if the water is at the height of the hip joint, the weight bearing of an animal is only 38% of their total body weight. In a swimming pool, there is even less impact on their joints (which is ideal for animals experiencing severe joint pain). These modalities allow animals to continue to exercise and strengthen their muscles despite painful or fragile postoperative joints.

Third, the hydrostatic pressure of the water reduces swelling by creating pressure in all directions to the body and limbs under water. This prevents body fluids from pooling in the lower extremities. The hydrostatic pressure also helps reduce the patient’s pain perception, allowing them to exercise more comfortably.

Fourth, the resistance of water is 60 times that of air. During exercise, this resistance provides an excellent environment for muscle strengthening and improved cardiovascular conditioning. Whether exercising slowly or quickly, the resistance will have a beneficial effect on the body. In the underwater treadmill, the jets can be turned on to add turbulence, which increases the resistance even more.

Disorders that benefit greatly from hydrotherapy include arthritis, postoperative fracture repair, postoperative joint repair, neurologic disorders (eg, paralysis or weakness from an impinged nerve), weakness due to muscle atrophy, soft tissue injuries, and overweight animals. Using hydrotherapy, pets can also gain strength and prevent muscle atrophy before neurologic or orthopedic surgery. Even healthy competitive animals can benefit from hydrotherapy by strengthening muscles and conditioning the cardiovascular system.
Hydrotherapy has many full-body benefits for many disorders and is beneficial for both acute and chronic conditions. After a full examination, a treatment protocol should be designed by a physical rehabilitator in conjunction with the supervising veterinarian to maximize the benefits of the hydrotherapy treatments.

Click Here for a list of resources for hydrotherapy.

Dr. Annette Richmond is a doctor of veterinary medicine. She earned her degree from UC Davis in 1997. She is also a certified veterinary acupuncturist, trained through the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society, and is currently becoming a certified canine rehabilitation therapist through the Canine Rehabilitation Institute. After 10 years of practicing in a traditional veterinary hospital where she integrated acupuncture and other natural treatments, she opened Natural Veterinary Therapy in Pacific Grove in 2007. She treats most common ailments by integrating traditional and natural medicine. She uses acupuncture, naturopathic medicines, natural supplements, wholesome foods, and physical therapy.  Natural Veterinary Therapy has the only underwater treadmill for small animals on the Monterey Peninsula. Natural Veterinary Therapy is located at 510 Lighthouse Avenue in Pacific Grove. Dr. Richmond can be contacted at (831) 655-0501.


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