A fitness club for your dog? Well, not exactly, but pooches in pools are becoming more common and the benefits are undeniable.
Long recognized as an essential part of the healing process for humans recovering from surgery or injuries, physical rehabilitation techniques are being used with pets to speed recovery and slow the degeneration that accompanies chronic conditions, such as arthritis. Rehab is also used for weight control in inactive dogs and to keep competition dogs strong and agile.
Treatment options include hot and cold packs, stretching, massage and joint mobilization, ultrasound, electrical stimulation, and holistic techniques, such as acupressure and acupuncture, but hydrotherapy — using water to alleviate pain and speed healing — is one of the most widely used treatments.
The Hows and Whys of Hydrotherapy
Canine hydrotherapy techniques include recreational pool swimming, walking on an underwater treadmill in what looks like an enormous fish tank, and paddling upstream in a small “endless” pool. Water temperature is regulated so that it is warm enough to keep the dog’s muscles supple, but cool enough for the dog to exercise without overheating.
The underwater treadmill is used to treat neurological injuries and to strengthen muscles and improve range of motion following orthopedic surgeries. As the dog’s condition improves, the water level in the tank is lowered gradually and treadmill speed is increased.
Conditions Commonly Treated with Physical Therapy
- Cruciate ligament injuries and surgical repairs
- Hip and elbow dysplasia
- Hip replacement
- Muscle injuries
- Disc or spinal diseases
- Hind-end weakness
- Degenerative myelopathies
In an endless pool, the dog swims against a current that is created with water jets. The animal’s weight is supported entirely by the water, making it a good option for obese dogs or dogs suffering from osteoarthritis. The force of the jets is adjusted to the dog’s ability.
Marty Pease, a certified canine rehabilitation practitioner (CCRP), co-owner of Canine Rehabilitation and Conditioning Group, in Englewood, Colo., and self-described body mechanic uses hydrotherapy extensively and has seen “amazing results” in some of her hydrotherapy patients, including a dachshund that hadn’t walked for three months following spinal surgery. “After one treatment on the underwater treadmill, the dog ran out of the building,” she said. “The owners were so shocked and happy they were in tears!”
Getting Your Dog Started
Though most veterinary practices don’t have the space or resources to offer rehab, some large clinics and specialty hospitals do, and there are many independent rehab centers.
These facilities typically require a referral from your veterinarian. The therapist will create an assessment and an individualized treatment plan. How long the treatment lasts depends on your dog’s condition and your goals for your pet’s quality of life.
If your goal is to condition your dog for an agility competition or to help it recover from surgery or an injury, treatments are finite. If your dog suffers from arthritis or another progressive and chronic condition, and your goals are to relieve pain, slow degeneration, and maintain mobility, therapy may become a regular activity for the rest of your pet’s life.
Rehab sessions last from 5 to 30 minutes, depending on your dog’s stamina and needs. Typically, the goal is to build to 30 minutes of sustained workout once or twice a week.
Canine Physical Therapy Professionals
Although it is not mandatory in the United States, many veterinary professionals — and human physical therapists — have completed advanced education to earn a certificate in canine rehabilitation. Look for their credentials.
Therapists (CCRTs or CCRPs) are veterinarians or human physical therapists who have completed a formal certification process. They assess your dog and create its treatment plan.
Assistants (CERPs or CCRAs) are specially trained veterinary technicians. They carry out the treatment plan and can teach you techniques you can use at home.
“Certification requires coursework, case study write-ups, an internship, and both written and practical exams,” explained Tammy Wolfe, PT, CCRP, GCFP, a rehab therapist at AAHA-accredited Alameda East Veterinary Hospital in Denver, Colo.
This article originally appeared in PetsMatter Volume 3 Issue 5, published by the American Animal Hospital Association. Copyright © 2009 AAHA. Find out more.