by Joané van Oudtshoorn and Caleigh Snyman, first published in We Love Pets SA and The Dog Box.

The Underwater Treadmill (UWTM) is an important component of rehabilitation  that facilitates movement and helps speed up recovery. It’s an extremely effective treatment for many animals; post-surgery, post-injury and for those with arthritis. The benefits of hydrotherapy for your  pets cannot be overstated!

The UWTM may be state of the art and high tech but is it really necessary? Can you not just swim Your dog in the local dam and achieve the same benefits? Although still beneficial in certain cases, the answer to the above question is no, and there are many reasons for that.

1. Resistance

Research shows that UWTM exercise speeds up muscle strengthening and improves joint range of motion in dogs following surgery, with benefits being gained in as little as 1-2 sessions per week! This is partly because of the resistance that the water adds, but also due to the
treadmill belt itself. Swimming is a lot easier by comparison. During an UWTM session, your pet will have all four limbs going through their full range of motion as they would if walking on land. The muscles, therefore, have to work harder, which is imperative for improving strength and recovering from injury.

2. Buoyancy

The buoyancy that water provides lessens the forces travelling up through the joints by decreasing the weight the animal must carry, therefore making it an excellent choice for dogs with painful joints. In the UWTM, the level of water added will determine how much buoyancy is experienced and can be controlled by the therapist. The more painful or functionally impaired the patient, the higher the water
level is raised. This makes UWTM therapy gentle and safe enough to use on patients as early as 2 weeks post-operatively (once stitches are removed and cleared by the veterinarian).

3. Gait training

In the UWTM, your pet can walk as it would on land. The therapist will stand in the water with your pet and assist him/her in moving correctly, thereby training them to use their limbs efficiently and as normally as possible. This can be key to returning the pet to full mobility.

4. Controlled speed and incline

Your pet’s UWTM session will be customized to match his/her ability and needs. Each session will be individually programmed for the speed and incline decided on by your therapist and can be changed at any time if the pet is finding it too difficult (or too easy). This makes it an
extremely safe tool to use for older or unfit dogs.

5. Controlled temperature

The water temperature in the UWTM is maintained at about +-30 degrees in winter and +-28 degrees in summer. The warmer temperature of the water promotes blood circulation, decreases stiffness, and provides pain relief. It is much easier to control the temperature in a smaller body of water than a large one.


UWTM therapy is far less intimidating than swimming, especially for those patients that are fearful of water. Great care is taken by the therapist to slowly introduce your pet to the process. We have had many owners who were certain that their pets would not adapt to the water. However, these dogs are now running excitedly into the treadmill on their own, anticipating the treats and toys that come along
with the exercise!

Swimming is still a great tool when used appropriately and directed by a well-trained animal physiotherapist. It is a less controlled activity where the leg movements of the patient cannot be micromanaged. The limbs go through less of their functional range of motion and are less transferable to the pet’s normal walking pattern on land. As with any advanced therapeutic intervention, a physiotherapeutic assessment is required before your pet can commence with any form of hydrotherapy. The treating therapist needs to keep a close eye on the progress of the patient and treat what the dog presents on each day.

Therefore, if your pet has undergone surgery or is suffering from joint pain or another musculoskeletal condition that might warrant hydrotherapy, please get in touch with your local physiotherapy clinic so that they can
assist in improving the quality of life of your pet.