Hydrotherapy refers to any type of therapy that involves water, so includes swimming and walking underwater. An underwater treadmill is a hydrotherapy form that can be greatly beneficial to pets with a variety of orthopedic conditions. This gentle therapy supports your furry pal’s muscle and joint health, while helping them recover from surgery or injury. Read on to learn more about how underwater treadmill therapy works, and benefits your pet.

How does underwater treadmill therapy for pets work?

Underwater treadmill therapy involves a treadmill that is submerged under varying amounts of water, depending on your pet’s needs. During a therapy session, the water turbulence is adjusted to best suit your pet’s condition and provide the most benefit. Higher turbulence creates more resistance, and a harder cardiovascular workout. The turbulence can be increased as your pet heals from an orthopedic surgery or injury, or as their body condition improves. Most pets will start off with a slow, forward walk, and move up to faster speeds as they improve. Some pets learn how to walk backward for different benefits. The water is kept warm to promote increased muscle flexibility and relaxation, which makes moving stiff, sore muscles and joints easier for your pet.

What conditions in pets can be treated with underwater treadmill therapy?

Typically, an underwater treadmill is used to treat muscular and skeletal conditions, but the therapy can also help healthy pets maintain a good body condition and musculature. Common conditions in pets that benefit from underwater treadmill therapy include:

  • Pre-surgery strengthening — Strengthening your pet’s muscles and tendons with low-impact exercise prior to surgery can help their tissues heal faster after the procedure. 
  • Osteoarthritis — Osteoarthritis is a painful joint condition that affects many older pets, and makes exercising comfortably difficult. When an arthritic pet uses an underwater treadmill, the water provides buoyancy that takes pressure off the joints, making exercise easier and less painful. 
  • Abnormal gait — Because of an injury or congenital defect, some pets may favor or limp on a leg, or refuse to use the leg at all. This underuse leads to muscle atrophy, further worsening the abnormal gait. However, the water’s buoyancy helps relieve pressure on the painful or awkward limb, which becomes easier to use while underwater compared with dry land. Underwater treadmill therapy can strengthen the leg that your pet favors enough to allow normal use again.
  • Neurological issues — Pets who have suffered from intervertebral disc disease and undergone surgery are excellent candidates for underwater treadmill therapy. As the pet works to find their balance again, especially if they experienced paresis or paralysis, the water supports their weight and cushions any falls.
  • Gentle conditioning — With roughly half the U.S. pet population classified as overweight or obese, regular exercise to help them get back in shape is important. The low-impact conditioning provided by underwater treadmill therapy helps these overweight pets return to an ideal body condition safely and gently.
  • Exercise recovery — If you have an athletic or working dog, underwater treadmill therapy helps soothe sore muscles, keeps your pet in shape without damaging joints, and makes regaining strength after an idle period easier. 

Which pets would benefit from underwater treadmill therapy?

Practically any pet can benefit from underwater treadmill therapy, although this treatment modality benefits some more than others. Examples of perfect pet candidates for underwater treadmill therapy include:

  • Older pets with long-term orthopedic issues
  • Dogs who engage in heavy exercise or work 
  • Pets recovering from orthopedic or neurological injuries
  • Pets who have had neck, back, or limb surgery
  • Overweight or obese pets

While hydrotherapy is generally safe for most pets, you should take extra care if your pet has a cardiac or respiratory disease. The water’s resistance can make exercise more difficult, but a highly trained staff can safely use underwater treadmill therapy for pets with these conditions. 

Although you may think your pet, especially a cat, does not enjoy swimming and would not tolerate this hydrotherapy form, you may be surprised. By slowly adding water to the treadmill tank, your pet won’t feel so nervous, and can gradually acclimate to the unusual equipment and water depth. Moving slowly, and providing plenty of positive reinforcement and encouragement, can make this a wonderful, low-impact exercise and therapy for many pets. 

Do you think underwater treadmill therapy would benefit your furry pal? Contact our Animal Rehabilitation Center team, to see if this hydrotherapy would be ideal for managing your pet’s condition.