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Hydrotherapy: The cutting-edge rehab technique making a splash with dogs

Paralyzed dog walks again
Paralyzed dog walks again 03:13

Charlie was a carefree, happy dachshund, until one day, she fell victim to the sort of back injury so common in her breed.

"I have a crate in my bedroom and the dogs sleep in the crate," Charie's "mom," Temple Richardson, tells CBS News. "Every morning, I come and open the crate and walk to the door and they just scamper after me. But one day, just about three years ago, Charlie didn't come. So, I went back in and she was just sitting there looking kind of sad, just not moving. Finally, I picked her up and brought her out and she was floppy. Her legs weren't working."

Charlie in April 2017, about three years after undergoing emergency spinal surgery. CBS News

Charlie had suffered a severe spinal injury and doctors informed Richardson that the small dog needed surgery immediately. In fact, there was only a 24-hour window before the disc could no longer be repaired and Charlie would never be able to walk again.

Needless to say, they opted for the surgery. The problem, however, was that it wasn't entirely successful. Even after the surgical intervention, Charlie's back legs remained paralyzed. So, Richardson rigged up a little box on wheels so Charlie could follow her around the house, and the family began imagining life with a pet confined to a wheelchair forever. 

What they could never have predicted, though, was that just a few short weeks later, Charlie would bounce back, regaining her ability to walk with the help of a rehabilitation technique called hydrotherapy. 

Charlie walking through New York's Riverside Park with Temple Richardson. CBS News

"She came to us three times a week for a couple weeks, and then her owner went away and left Charlie with us for a couple [more]," recalls Dr. Bonnie Brown, VMD, CCRP, founder of Canine Rehab of New York, the rehabilitation facility where Charlie was treated. "We worked with Charlie every day and, when mom came back from vacation, Charlie went running up to her on all four legs." 

Charlie was cured through a combination of physical therapy exercises, laser therapy treatments and — perhaps most adorable of all — a state-of-the-art underwater treadmill used in hydrotherapy.

"She's on a treadmill in a little pool, which cracks me up just imagining her," laughs Richardson. "I love to imagine if she has a little water bottle and towel. Her progress is incredible."

A schnauzer with a neurological disorder undergoes hydrotherapy at Canine Rehab of New York. CBS News

Experts say that incredible progress is thanks to the healing properties of the water.

"What's great about the water treadmill is that, when the dog is in there, it decreases the amount of weight they're putting on their legs. It's very buoyant, the water," explains Brown. "So, it helps them be able to walk when they might otherwise, on land, have trouble walking. And the water's 89 degrees, so it's a little bit like a spa and, depending on the level that we put the water, it helps the animal use a different joint in a different manner."

Molly, a black lab who has torn both of her ACLs, licks peanut butter off the door of her underwater treadmill during hydrotherapy at NYC's Animal Medical Center. CBS News

 Dr. Leilani Alvarez, DVM, DACVSMR, head of Integrative and Rehabilitative Medicine at New York's Animal Medical Center, points out that the weight of the water inherently provides a strengthening function, as well.

"The water provides resistance, so the animals have to push their limbs against it, which is great for muscle strengthening," she explains. "So, it's a two-part benefit. Hydrotherapy improves range of motion without pain and it also improves strengthening. The added bonus is we frequently use peanut butter or toys or some other type of treat to make it an enjoyable experience for them. I wish I could exercise that way myself." 

And hydrotherapy doesn't stop at the treadmill. Rehabilitation facilities like New York's Water4Dogs offer controlled swim therapy as well.

Sam, a 16-year-old beagle, is assisted through controlled swim therapy at New York City's Water4Dogs. CBS News

"We use our resistance pool for controlled swim therapy for fitness and low-impact or zero-impact exercise," explains Dr. Jonathan Block, Veterinary Medical Director at Water4Dogs. "So, it kind of takes the next step in going from the underwater treadmill, which is low-impact, to swimming, which is zero-impact because they're effectively weightless in the water. When they're swimming, there's no impact on their bones and joints."

Canine patients are fitted with flotation devices as needed. And they take frequent breaks to rest and have their muscles massaged.

Bentley, a young pit bull who recently had one of his hind legs amputated due to cancer, relishes in his controlled swim therapy and the toys used as rewards. CBS News

"We'll give them rest," Block tells CBS News, "but we'll use this time to give them a deep tissue massage, stretch their muscles, work on the areas where they might be limited in terms of their range of motion."

Hydrotherapy can be the game-changer for animals who've recently undergone surgery, but it can also be a huge help for dogs with generalized weakness due to old age, neurological or orthopedic disease. 

"You know, if you hurt your back, your doctor will tell you to go to the gym and work out," explains Dr. Brown. "Well, it's the same thing for them. We're always trying to strengthen the area that is weakest in the dog. If they've had a knee surgery, for example, they're going to put all of their weight on the other leg. And so their back gets sore and their neck gets sore and they may be putting more weight on their elbows. So, we try to work with them in whatever area needs to be fixed or strengthened or protected."

And that's why, for pet owners across the country, the glass — or rather, the plexiglass pool — is now very much half full.

Fievel, a black lab who tore both of his ACLs, does laps around the pool at New York's Water4Dogs. CBS News
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