Underwater Treadmill Promotes Healing for VTH Patients

February 12, 2016

When Charley, a loveable, energetic chocolate Labrador Retriever belonging to Dr. Michael Hiles of Lafayette, came-up limping after an all-out, though failed chase to catch a hawk, she found just the help she needed at Purdue Veterinary Medicine’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital.  She underwent successful surgery to repair a partially ruptured tendon, and then, just like humans recovering from a torn Achilles tendon, began a long road to full recovery, aided significantly by the VTH’s underwater treadmill.

The submerged treadmill is a relatively new addition to the hospital’s Physical Rehabilitation Service, which is led by Dr. Stephanie Thomovsky, board-certified clinical assistant professor of veterinary neurology and neurosurgery.  "The benefit for dogs using an underwater treadmill is similar to walking under water for humans,” Dr. Thomovsky explained.  “If you walk in the water it's more difficult due to resistance, but there is less stress on the joints due to buoyancy. The buoyancy makes our patients lighter and puts less stress on dogs recovering from both orthopedic and neurologic surgeries or those with osteoarthritis.”  Dr. Thomovsky added, "Also, we keep the water warm. It's usually about 88 degrees, so that will increase blood supply to the limbs. That also helps in the recovery."

Jessica Bowditch, veterinary neurology and physical rehabilitation technician, works with dogs using the treadmill, and in most cases, gets in the tank with the canines. "I have had some dogs that sort of have a look like, 'What is that?' But, usually, you put them in and they're fine.”

The underwater treadmill therapy was just the ticket for Charley.  After her surgery last May, Charley initially was fitted with a special orthotic device shaped like a boot to help with her recovery.  After the boot was removed, Charley became one of the first VTH patients to use the treadmill.  Beginning in October, she had treadmill therapy three days per week.  “She had a lot of muscle atrophy, and the therapy strengthened her leg muscles and helped her relearn how to walk normally,” said Dr. Thomovsky, who also is a certified canine rehabilitation practitioner.  Now Charley is nearly fully recovered and comes just once a month.  Dr. Hiles is thrilled with the results.  “Without this treatment, Charley likely would have become a three-legged dog,” Dr. Hiles commented. 

Charley’s treatment is just another chapter in a long-standing relationship between Dr. Hiles and the Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine – a relationship that came full circle with Charley’s surgery.  A 1987 Purdue graduate in electrical and computer engineering, Dr. Hiles earned his Ph.D. in PVM’s Department of Basic Medical Sciences in 1992.  His research involved working on a collaborative team that included Dr. Gary Lantz, PVM professor of small animal surgery.  The team studied porcine small intestine submucosa (SIS), which was found to have a unique ability to regenerate tissue.  The discovery was licensed to Cook Biotech, which Dr. Hiles helped found in 1995 and where he now serves as vice president and chief scientific officer.  Twenty years after the company’s founding, SIS was used in the surgery to repair Charley’s tendon in the Small Animal Hospital. 

Click here to view a video of Charley using the underwater treadmill.  Click here to view a complete news release about the underwater treadmill.

Jessica Bowditch, veterinary neurology and physical rehabilitation technician, works with Charley using the underwater dog treadmill, which helps rehabilitating dogs and also can be used for dogs who need a different way to exercise.

Writer: Kevin Doerr, pvmnews@purdue.edu


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