A Growing Trend in Canine Physical Therapy

Humans have known for millennia about the healing properties of water for injuries and aching joints. But it’s only recently that dogs have begun to enjoy the benefits of hydrotherapy. Is it simply another pet health craze, or does it work?

What Is Hydrotherapy?

Hydrotherapy literally means water therapy and can refer to any therapeutic use of water to aid or improve health. For humans, hydrotherapy includes exercises such as swimming and water aerobics, as well as more sedentary activities like saunas, whirlpool baths, and mineral baths. Exercising in water has the benefit of providing both buoyancy and resistance, making it possible to strengthen and condition muscles and build endurance without placing stress on joints. Bathing in hot water can also dilate blood vessels and relax joints and muscles, easing aches and pains and aiding in healing of injuries.

Hydrotherapy for Dogs

While humans have been incorporating water therapy into their exercise and health practices since before the Roman Empire, hydrotherapy for dogs came about much more recently, by way of the horse-racing industry. Revealing the healing and conditioning benefits of having racehorses walk in water, the practice was soon adapted for greyhounds in the racing industry. The invention of underwater treadmills for dogs soon followed, and, after that, the practice quickly branched out to dogs in general.

For dogs, hydrotherapy usually consists of either swimming or walking in water, whether in shallow water along the beach or on an underwater treadmill. “Exercising in water can be recreational, like what many people may do with their pets in their pool or at a beach,” says Dr. Tari Kern, DVM, a certified canine rehabilitation practitioner at Pawsitive Steps Rehabilitation and Sports Medicine. “However, hydrotherapy can also be used as part of a very specific, structured program with the goal of easing arthritis discomfort in pets, improving function after injury or surgical procedures, and even for optimizing conditioning of animal athletes.”

Treating Dogs With Hydrotherapy

Canine hydrotherapy can help treat a wide range of injuries and health conditions. “The low-impact nature of hydrotherapy exercise allows for its use in patients of all ages, including geriatric patients with arthritis and muscle atrophy or wasting,” says Dr. Kern.

Water therapy can also be beneficial in treating:

The type of hydrotherapy prescribed depends on the condition being treated, as well as on the condition of the dog. “Swimming provides a good cardiovascular workout, works the core musculature and can help to increase the overall burn of calories. However, it is very difficult to modify swimming as an exercise in general. As a result, it’s challenging to use swimming for broad-scale rehabilitation,” Dr. Kern explains. “[An] underwater treadmill offers better ‘on-demand’ control of an exercise program and allows modifications to be made more specific. The depth of the water and speed of the treadmill can be quickly adjusted to provide different experiences for the pet. This allows the effects of the exercise to be tailored more specifically to the overall goal of hydrotherapy and each pet’s unique needs and possible limitations.”

But with all of hydrotherapy’s benefits, it’s not a panacea, Dr. Kern cautions. “Hydrotherapy is a great tool to use, but it is simply one treatment modality. Water-based exercises can help to rebuild muscle mass, promote cardiovascular output and improve stamina. However, it cannot target specific individual muscles for strengthening or reduce local inflammation or pain. The best rehabilitation plan should be individualized for each pet and incorporate a combination of modalities that best help to address all of the problems that need to be corrected.”

Hydrotherapy for Physical Conditioning and Injury Prevention

For sporting dogs and other highly active breeds, recreational hydrotherapy is a great way to add physical conditioning exercises that help increase stamina and endurance as well as strengthen muscles, all of which can improve athletic performance and help guard against muscle strain and injuries. “Positive results can often be seen quickly when incorporating hydrotherapy into athletic conditioning programs, as exercise in water can accelerate results when compared to similar land-based exercises,” says Dr. Kern. “For example, trotting in the underwater treadmill with the water at elbow height for 2 miles would be approximately the equivalent amount of exercise as running 4 to 5 miles on land with less concussive forces on the joints.”

But hydrotherapy should only be one part of an overall training program. “An athlete needs exercises that mirror their sport and should not exclusively do hydrotherapy when training,” Dr. Kern warns. “It should be considered as an addition to the athlete’s regular exercise program to help diversify and challenge their muscles, similar to cross-training. Working with a rehabilitation and sports medicine veterinarian and their team can significantly up the level of the program also, compared to trying to go it alone.”

Dog Hydrotherapy at Home

Hydrotherapy doesn’t always need to be done in a clinical setting. Recreational hydrotherapy for exercise and conditioning, such as swimming or walking in water, can be done at home in a swimming pool or in a larger body of water. For small breeds, a kiddie pool in the back yard can do in a pinch. But not all dogs are natural swimmers, so it’s important to closely supervise your dog. “We recommend always using a correctly fitting flotation or buoyancy jacket with pets while in the water, in case they get tired or need assistance,” says Dr. Kern. “If the pet is otherwise healthy and swimming for basic exercise and fun, toys that float, and controlled fetch games can be used to mix things up a bit.”

It’s also important not to force dogs who don’t enjoy swimming or water sports. “It may result in injury for the pet or the person or both. If your veterinarian believes that swimming would benefit your pet, but they are anxious about water, it’s best to seek professional guidance to help teach them,” says Dr. Kern. He also advises against attempting to provide medical hydrotherapy by yourself. “If the pet has medical conditions, attempting hydrotherapy at home is not advised. For those pets, using an underwater treadmill in a professional setting would be best, so that the exercises and the height of the water can be adjusted by the veterinary rehabilitation team based on the pet’s abilities.”

If you’re considering adding water exercises to your dog’s physical conditioning and training regimen, be sure to first clear it with your vet. Not all dogs are a good candidate for this type of exercise. “If signs of stress are observed, the activity should be stopped immediately,” Dr. Kern also warns. “Pets that are anxious or stressed may experience increased blood pressure and increased heart rates. Others may panic and flail about in water, which may create back muscle pain. The goal of hydrotherapy is gentle exercise and anything that is observed contrary to this plan means the activity must stop immediately.”

Providing Hydrotherapy for Your Dog

With the proven efficacy of hydrotherapy for aiding in healing and recovery, hydrotherapy clinics are popping up all over the United States. More and more veterinarians are also adding aquatic therapy equipment to their facilities. If you believe your dog might benefit from hydrotherapy, talk to your vet about the options available in your area—look for trained and certified rehabilitation specialists. It’s also a good idea to visit the facilities to talk to the providers and see their equipment before booking a session for your dog.

While costs will vary from one provider to the next, on average you can expect to pay around $35 to $45 for an initial consultation. After that, you’ll likely pay $20 to $30 for a swim therapy session and $35 to $50 for an underwater treadmill session.


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