In February 2012, cheri wells adopted Duncan, a Rottweiler with lupus, from the Pasco County Animal Shelter in Land O’Lakes, Fla. Thin and frail, Duncan was almost too weak to stand up when he urinated.
Wells, determined to find a way to combat Duncan’s progressive autoimmune disorder, first consulted a holistic veterinarian. The next stop was Rocky’s Retreat Canine Health and Fitness Center in Orlando, where she hoped that hydrotherapy could help her pup regain muscle strength and just generally feel better overall. In choosing this option, Wells (and Duncan) took advantage of a form of physiotherapy long used by humans and more recently applied to animals.
Canine water therapy takes place in either a heated lap pool or a smaller Plexiglas® tank with an underwater treadmill; whirlpools are also sometimes used. In the lap pool, the therapist may swim with the dog, who is usually strapped into a life vest, or manipulate and exercise the dog’s limbs while he or she rests in the warm water. The therapist may also join the dog in the treadmill tank, though here, the role is to guide and keep the dog on track. The dog enters the empty tank via a ramp; once the door is closed, the tank is filled with warm water to a depth appropriate for the dog’s size and therapy needs. The treadmill is then activated, and the dog walks at a steady pace, supported by the water’s buoyancy, which unloads weight on the joints and encourages a full range of motion.
Pool or tank, both approaches effectively increase circulation and joint flexibility and decrease pain. Essentially, fundamental physics makes hydrotherapy effective. Water’s resistance increases the demand placed on the muscles as they propel the limbs through the water, making it effective for building strength. In addition, the viscosity of the water— its frictional resistance—is thought to increase sensation and limb awareness, thus helping a weak dog find his or her balance.
Horses were among the first animals to benefit from hydrotherapy; those in the equine rehab field would swim their patients in large pools to restore them to their former galloping glory. Following their example, Greyhound trainers also employed the method. Today, rehabilitation (much of which focuses on hydrotherapy) is among the fastest-growing areas in vet medicine.
“What we originally thought would be a ‘boutique’ area of veterinary medicine has become very popular. We use it frequently, especially for the treatment of chronic arthritis, cruciate ligament surgery [post-operatively] and neurological deficits. Virtually any neurological or orthopedic problem can benefit from aquatic therapy,” says Darryl Millis, DVM, DACVS, professor of orthopedic surgery and director of surgical service at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. UT is one of only two educational facilities in the U.S. to offer a certification in canine rehabilitation. (The Canine Rehabilitation Institute in Wellington, Fla., is the other.)
In 1993, Dr. Millis and David Levine, PhD, a board-certified physical therapist who teaches at UT, Chattanooga, began to consider alternative rehabilitation methods. “We were trying to think of ways to incorporate exercise and aquatic therapy for dogs, and we needed an aquatic therapy modality other than swimming, which can be too much activity for an early postoperative patient or a very arthritic dog,” explains Millis.
“We ran across an underwater treadmill for people while searching the Internet for rehabilitation products. I called the company and asked if they would consider making one for dogs. We worked together to modify the human treadmill for canines, and were the first to have a self-contained unit. One of the key concepts that we contributed was the open appearance of the treadmill; dogs will not walk into a solid wall. We also learned that [being able] to closely monitor the water level and carefully control variable speeds were important in the rehab process,” he says.