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  • Tiffany Downing, RVT

The Deep Dive into Swimming

What's the problem with swimming? When is swimming the right exercise?

We'll discuss the mechanics of a dog's body when they are swimming and why it isn't the best exercise for most Physical Rehabilitation patients. But first, let's start with a quick visual:

Thanks to Dexter's examples, we can clearly see some big differences in how a dog exercises while swimming versus walking in an Underwater Treadmill. Now, let's get into some details!

What Swimming IS Good For:

Swimmer Puppy Syndrome

Swimming is a great choice for dogs needing to exercise their front limbs that have no other injuries or conditions that would be aggravated by vigorous exercise. For example, puppies that have developed Swimmer Puppy Syndrome often benefit from swimming because, at least at first, they are unable to use the Underwater Treadmill. Swimmer's Syndrome Puppies develop splayed legs and flattened chests early in life and must be rehabbed as soon as possible to have any chance of being able to walk. Swimming, used alongside other Rehab Modalities, encourages them to work their front leg and chest muscles, helping to bring their splayed legs underneath their body instead of out to the side.

Swimming can also be beneficial for dogs that refuse to bear any weight on a front leg and continue to hold the leg up in the Underwater Treadmill. Great care must be used in these cases to ensure that these patients don't overwork or further injure themselves while swimming. At CROC, when utilizing swimming for a patient, they are outfitted with a life vest and held in place the entire time so that we have complete control over their session.

Dogs that are free of any health concerns certainly benefit from varied exercise to challenge different aspects of the body. It is important to note that 1 minute of swimming is equivalent to 5 minutes of vigorous dry exercise, so it is easy to accidentally overdo it when they're having so much fun in the water. Regardless of medical status, knowing your dog's physical limits and slowly introducing them to new forms of exercise is imperative to prevent overexertion or injury.

What Swimming is NOT Good For:

two doggos in a bed

When dogs swim, their front legs are paddling almost violently, in fast and poorly controlled motions. These intense movements can be hard on joints, especially those with arthritis. Arthritic joints are missing the normal lubrication to protect the bones from grinding against each other and may even have bone spurs. Think of that crunchy, painful joint experiencing high-intensity, high-speed exercise - OUCH! Arthritis patients frequently have muscular atrophy, where the muscles waste away, and therefore need careful, controlled exercise to avoid overworking their weakened body. With swimming, you can't tell a dog to swim slowly; there's swimming or not swimming and no in-between.

shiba inu at rehab

While they're paddling in the front, dogs tend to tuck their back legs up close to their body, rarely kicking. Therefore, the stress of holding the back half of the body up is placed on the neck and back muscles, as well as the spine itself. Along with the added strain, the spine experiences quick, twisting movements when the dog is swimming. For our patients with spinal conditions or injuries, increased straining and quick, twisty movements are a perfect recipe for re-injury and pain. Spinal surgery patients or patients hoping to medically manage a spinal condition without surgery should never permit swimming as an activity.

The little bit of kicking that the rear legs do while swimming is generally periodic, spastic, and forceful, therefore not beneficial for the strengthening and coordination training that is sought after in Rehab Therapy. Swimming does not allow for the loading and unloading cycle the muscles experience when a dog bears weight on their leg. This loading cycle is what causes the muscles to strengthen, addressing the muscle atrophy and weakness most patients present with. The mechanics of swimming can actually cause increased pain in arthritic joints or even re-inure healing surgical sites. For example, dogs participating in swimming exercise after a TPLO knee surgery have been known to displace the surgical plate and even snap off surgical screws during the forceful kicking motion.

Labrador in underwater treadmill

Lastly, because you cannot control how deep the dog is in a swimming pool and pools are extremely difficult to clean and sanitize, swimming is not safe for dogs with any sort of respiratory compromise. For example, a dog with Laryngeal Paralysis would be at extremely high risk for aspirating (breathing in) the water they are swimming in. Worse - that water is full of fecal particulates, urine, dirt, hair, and large amounts of chemicals to try to compensate for that. Now our Laryngeal Paralysis patient has aspirated water and all of those contaminants into their lungs - YIKES!

Why Underwater Treadmill Therapy:

Hydrotherapy is incredibly beneficial for a variety of medical conditions, so Veterinary Medicine had to find a way to make it safer. Using an Underwater Treadmill allows us to have control over all variables a dog might encounter while participating in Hydrotherapy.

small dog in underwater treadmill

Water Quality: Starting at the most basic level, the water is cleaner. Because the Underwater Treadmill is drained and filled between each patient, we can ensure that every patient gets fresh, clean water in which to exercise. Many Rehab Patients have trouble controlling their bladder or bowels, so accidents happen. When they happen in the Underwater Treadmill, the entire batch of water is drained and the treadmill is sanitized from top to bottom before another patient hops in. Before a patient ever uses it, our water is also filtered and heated to the perfect temperature to soothe aching muscles and joints. Pools are rarely, if ever, drained to be scrubbed and disinfected but our Underwater Treadmill is deep-cleaned and sanitized at least daily, if not more frequently.

border collie in empty underwater treadmill

Customized Exercise Environment: At the beginning of an Underwater Treadmill Therapy Session, our patients walk into a dry, empty treadmill which for dogs that don't like water, is much less scary than being instantly submerged in a pool. The water is then slowly allowed to fill from the bottom up and stopped at the exact height for that dog's needs. Exercising in water has the benefit of offering increased resistance, but also increased buoyancy. Because we can precisely control the water level a dog is standing in, we can fine tune exactly how much buoyancy and resistance any one patient needs.

Slow and controlled exercise in a low-impact, high-resistance environment allows our medically fragile patients to build muscle and improve stamina without overworking or re-injuring themselves. For patients needing a more intense workout, the water level can be decreased so that the water no longer supports their body but still provides increased resistance. We can also control exactly how fast or slow the dog walks in the Underwater Treadmill by controlling the speed of the Treadmill Belt that they walk on. For dogs needing more intense exercise or exercises focused on shifting weight to their back legs or lower back, CROC also has an Underwater Treadmill that has the ability to incline so that the patient can walk uphill while in the water.

Spine Safe Exercise: Because the dog is standing or walking in the Underwater Treadmill, there is never a time where one part of the spine is under more stress than another. In fact, because of the buoyancy the water provides, dogs in the Underwater Treadmill experience even less strain on their back than they would outside the water. They also don't have to work as hard to move their body, which is a game changer for dogs suffering from paralysis or paraparesis. These patients have decreased or no voluntary movement of their legs outside the water, but in the water, they may be able move their legs a tiny bit since it takes less effort. A little movement means a little muscle growth and a little more nerve conduction which eventually builds to more independent movement. Lastly, because they are on their feet, there is no additional twisting motion on the spine.

How Do You Know Which One to Use?

veterinarian and rehab practitioner closely evaluating a dog

At CROC, all exercises are Veterinarian Prescribed and performed by Licensed Veterinary Professionals with years of experience treating a variety of Medical Conditions. When a patient comes to see us for Physical Rehabilitation, we thoroughly evaluate them beyond the presenting complaint. A deep understanding of canine anatomy and physiology, as well as how various conditions affect the body, means that we can then custom design a patient's treatment plan to address their weaknesses without causing further pain or injury.

Your dog should be evaluated by Licensed Veterinary Professionals that have also been formally educated in Veterinary Physical Rehabilitation before starting any Physical Rehabilitation exercises.

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