This vs. That: Swimming Pool vs. Underwater tread mill

Post by Dr. Kristin Kirkby Shaw, DVM, MS, Ph.D., CCRT, DACVS, DACVSMR 

As a rehab vet, I often get asked the question, “Which is better, swimming or walking in an underwater treadmill?”  The answer is that it depends on what the goal of the water activity is. Swimming in a pool or safe outdoor body of water is an excellent way for your dog with arthritis to exercise without putting a lot of impact on their joints. Swimming is also a fantastic rehabilitation tool for improving the range of motion and strength in the front legs.

But when we specifically want to target the back legs for strength or range of motion, the underwater treadmill is preferred.

So the general summary of what is better:

  • General exercise: Swimming
  • Rehab for front legs: Swimming
  • Rehab for back legs: Underwater treadmill

Underwater treadmills are commonly found in veterinary rehabilitation centers, and you can click here to find a rehab vet near you. But, if you can’t make it to an underwater treadmill, swimming may still be helpful for your dog.

No matter what form of water exercise your dog engages in, it is crucial that you follow these additional recommendations:

  • Safety first
    • Unless your dog is an expert swimmer, they should wear a life jacket, especially when learning how to swim.
    • If you live in an area with alligators, DO NOT let your dog swim in a lake or pond. Dr. Shaw lived in Florida for many years and unfortunately had more than one client who experienced the tragic consequences of this. Even in states without alligators, there are some areas that have water snakes, so be sure to know what to expect in your environment
  • Careful entry and exit from the water
    • Your dog should ideally wade gently in and out of the water before they start swimming. Yeah, right! They are most likely bounding in after a thrown ball, leaping off a dock, or slipping and sliding over rocks to get to the water. An over-exuberant water entry has the potential to cause injury and undo the benefits of swimming. Likewise, if your dog swims in a pool and pulls themselves out over the side with their front legs over and over, this will lead to tendonitis in the shoulder, which can be very hard to get rid of. Teach your dog to get out using the steps.
  • Start slow and don’t over-do it
    • As with any new exercise program, it is important to gradually increase how much time your dog is engaging in the activity. If your dog is just starting to swim or walk on the underwater treadmill, they should probably not swim or walk for more than 5-10 minutes total, and they may need rest breaks in between. If you are taking your dog for rehabilitation, please be aware that your dog should not walk for 20-30 minutes on their first day. Overdoing it will lead to soreness and potential injury. Gradually add a few minutes each week and look for signs of fatigue (see our tips for safe exercise here).