Healing waters: A veterinary in Sunset Hill achieves breakthroughs

Miss Ellie sticks out her tongue and takes a few tentative laps at the chlorinated water that's slowly rising around her paws.

Once the water level reaches her shoulders, the treadmill beneath her begins to move. She hesitates, sliding backward into the waiting arms of veterinary technician Jennifer Kimball. After a few coaxing words and reassuring pats, the 10-month-old pug begins to walk on her three good limbs.

Alycia Lamb, 35, veterinary doctor and owner and of Sunset Hill Vet-erinary and Rehabilitation Center, watches expectantly through the glass walls of the tank as Barbara Melseth, Miss Ellie's owner, kneels down and displays the plush bear toy that'll serve as a reward once the session is finished. After a few minutes of three-legged walking, Miss Ellie slowly extends her injured right foreleg and takes a hesitant step. Dr. Lamb smiles. This is what she's been waiting for.

"Good girl, Ellie," she says. As if in response, the pug centers her weight and stands squarely on all four paws. She stumbles on the treadmill and then falls back into her three-legged gait. While this display might not seem like much of a breakthrough, it's plenty for one day. A humeral fracture and weeks in a cast have severely weakened the muscles in Miss Ellie's right forelimb and damaged the growth plate in her elbow. Her re-habilitation will take some time.

But at least rehabilitation is an option.

"Up until recently," says Lamb, "a dog with injuries like Miss Ellie's would've been prescribed only cage rest and drugs - non-steroidal anti-inflammatories. Her chances for re-gaining use of her leg would've been very poor. As it is, we're fighting an uphill battle, but with physical rehabilitation methods like Aqua Paws, she at least has a chance."

Aqua Paws offers a new approach to the burgeoning field of animal physical rehabilitation, and Sunset Hill, on Northwest Market Street in Ballard, is the only veterinary hospital in the Seattle area that offers the treatment. Built by Ferno, a company that has been manufacturing human physical-therapy aids for years, the Aqua Paws system provides a way of helping animals recover from a variety of ailments ranging from arthritis and hip dysplasia to obesity and post-surgical weakness.

Similar to techniques used for humans, Aqua Paws submerges the majority of the patient's body in a tank of warm water with a treadmill on the floor. Buoyancy drastically reduces the weight placed on the limbs by the body, and the mild heat increases blood circulation and loosens tight joints, muscles and tendons. As a result, limbs that otherwise would be rendered all but immobile can be used normally and comfortably, while the exercise of flexion and extension incrementally increases muscle strength with each session. It also serves to stimulate neuromuscular memory.

In order to take weight off an injured limb and alleviate the pain, an animal limps or takes shorter strides. However, when the body is underwater, it has a tendency to become what's called "hypermetric." The weightlessness of the environment causes the legs to snap forward more, almost as if they were swimming, and the snapping motion encourages an exaggerated flexing and stretching of the joints.

"This causes your brain to remember, 'Oh, I don't have to limp anymore,'" says Lamb. "In essence, your brain retrains your body how to walk normally. It's a big help both for rehabilitation and for neurologic patients who have forgotten where their limbs are in space"

Aqua Paws is used in conjunction with a variety of other techniques at Sunset Hill to provide a physical rehabilitation regimen tailored to the needs of each animal patient, as well as to the patient's owner. "We don't avoid medication," Lamb stresses. "We need to use it, but, like Aqua Paws, it's only a part of the solution for any given problem."

The hospital, which has now been open four months, has so far dealt primarily with dogs but is set up to provide care for other species as well. Because the speed of the treadmill and the level of water can be easily adjusted in the tank, the Aqua Paws system is equipped to serve animals of any size, from Great Danes to cats - unusually mellow, non-hydrophobic cats, that is.

"I'd consider treating a kitty with it," Lamb says, "but it would have to be a pretty special cat that was tolerant of what we were doing. It wouldn't do any good if the animal was horrified and fighting me every step of the way."

Sunset Hill also offers animal acupuncture and massage. Darla Rewers, certified veterinary acupuncturist, and Leisha Diane, licensed animal massage practitioner, are currently available only on Wednesdays or by special appointment, but will be onsite more often as demand for their services grows.

As proud as she is of the groundbreaking physical-therapy techniques employed by her hospital, Lamb is also passionate about general veterinary practice. She's taken pains to make the atmosphere as comfortable as possible for both patients and owners, because "life is stressful enough when your pet is hurt or sick."

Two segregated exam rooms, one for dogs and one for cats, reduce patients' anxiety and excitement brought on by lingering scents, and the hospital's floors are all made of a non-slip material to cut back on the skittering and sliding of wet animals coming out of the water tank. The large treatment and surgery area in the back has windows that look out onto the water and let in a healthy dose of warm, natural light. The waiting room, manned by office coordinator and graphic designer Jackie Harris, features a permanent display of animal photos by Christine Haslet, as well as a rotating show of pieces by local artists.

The doors of the hospital are open from 6 to 9 p.m. for the Ballard Artwalk on the second Saturday of every month, during which time people are encouraged to ask questions and take tours of the hospital as well as view artwork. Lamb sees it as a way for her and her staff to connect with the community.

"We're surrounded by so many great neighborhoods," she says. "This city is just full of people who love animals. Even for those of us who have human children, our pets are part of the family. They're not disposable to us. That's why we try to do so much more for pets than simply dole out shots and treat pain.

"Just like people, injured animals need to try and regain full use of their bodies. We need to get them moving and exercising again so that they can lead more normal, less painful lives."

The strategy seems to agree with Miss Ellie. After her Aqua Paws session is over and her injured limb has been carefully examined, she finally gets her mouth on the promised plush toy reward, tossing and chasing it all around the examining room. Lamb shakes her head.

"That bear's probably too good of an exercise," she says.[[In-content Ad]]