Hydrotherapy For Dogs

Canine hydrotherapy guide

Hydrotherapy is a healthful, safe and effective treatment for dogs. The name derives from ancient Greek and simply means “water healing.” The benefits of hydrotherapy for humans have been known since ancient times; the buoyancy of water allows muscles to be exercised without any strain and warm water promotes relaxation and well-being. The healing power of water has long been known to horse trainers: race horses are sometimes exercised in the sea to treat leg injuries and restore their strength and flexibility and hydrotherapy in specially designed pools has been used to help greyhounds to recover from racing injuries. Now, hydrotherapy is recognised as being beneficial to all dogs and is a treatment that is often prescribed by veterinarians to improve both physical and mental health.

What is hydrotherapy for dogs?

Canine hydrotherapy is an aquatic exercise for dogs in a safe and warm environment. Canine hydrotherapy pools are large tanks containing water that supports the dog and allows it to exercise without placing any strain on the muscles and any stiff or painful joints. Swimming is an excellent exercise for dogs and helps them to regain strength and stamina that has been lost post-operatively or due to the ageing process, illness or injury. An underwater treadmill is sometimes used for controlled walking or running and the level of the water is adjustable from ankle deep to shoulder high. A course of hydrotherapy is often prescribed by vets as part of a physiotherapy regime but can also be enjoyed as a leisure and fitness activity for both pets and their owners.

How does hydrotherapy for dogs work?

  • The warm temperature of the water relaxes muscles by causing an expansion of the blood vessels in the skin. As the skin temperature increases, the dog will experience a reduction of pain and muscle spasms will be relaxed. Pain, swollen joints and stiffness often lead to a decreased range of movement: stiffness is eased as the warm water expands blood vessels.
  • When a joint is injured, body fluids tend to accumulate around the affected area, causing swelling and pain. The hydrostatic pressure of the water helps to reduce swelling by promoting the movement of body fluids away from the swollen joint. When immersion in warm water is combined with exercising the limb, blood circulation is improved, thus promoting healing.
  • Buoyancy decreases the pressure on weight-bearing joints and dramatically lessens the impact associated with walking on dry land; it also improves balance and flexibility, helping to alleviate pain and allowing easier movement without further strain.

What are the benefits of canine hydrotherapy?

Hydrotherapy has been recognised as an effective treatment for a range of conditions for many centuries; now, it has become an integral part of many veterinary practices. Hydrotherapy is effective for dogs of all breeds and ages and the ways in which exercising in warm water can help a dog’s fitness and wellbeing include:

  • Before a planned operation

Hydrotherapy is often recommended by veterinarians for pre-operative conditioning to build and tone muscles before surgery; it is highly effective without risking further damage to damaged joints. By building muscle mass before surgery, the dog’s post-operative rehabilitation time will be greatly lessened.

  • To assist recovery after an operation

Vets often prescribe a course of hydrotherapy sessions as part of a post-operative or post-trauma rehabilitation programme and hydrotherapy has been shown to improve the chances of a dog’s return to full fitness. Muscles begin to waste after just three days of immobilisation and exercise in the safe, controlled environment of a hydrotherapy pool is the ideal way to build muscle tone and strengthen joints.

  • For senior dogs

Older dogs, who often suffer from arthritis and whose performance and stamina are beginning to decline, will benefit from hydrotherapy treatment. Many dogs begin to lose general fitness and muscle tone and start to put on weight as they gradually become less able to cope with exercise. The support of the warm water in the hydro pool allows the dog to exercise with reduced pain and a greater range of movement, resulting in improved flexibility and toned muscles. Research has shown that a 5-minute swim in a hydro pool is the equivalent of a 5-mile walk and older dogs who are given hydrotherapy treatment often seem to enjoy a new lease of life.

  • Hydrotherapy forms part of the treatment for many other conditions

Hydrotherapy is commonly recommended for the post-operative rehabilitation of many conditions, including hip and elbow dysplasia, hip replacement, cruciate repair and general fixation.
A programme of hydrotherapy can also be very helpful in reducing pain and discomfort in cases of:

  • Spondylosis, a spinal condition seen most often in older dogs
  • Arthritis
  • Nerve damage
  • CDRM, a progressive disease of the spinal cord most often seen in Corgis and German Shepherds
  • Tendon, ligament and muscle injuries.
  • OCD – Hydrotherapy sessions are calming and relaxing for pets suffering with anxiety and associated compulsive behaviours.

A healthy way for your pet to exercise

A swim in a hydrotherapy pool is a wonderful way to tire out a puppy or active young dog; as an added bonus, the dog will gain confidence in the water. When dogs or puppies drown, it is usually when they accidentally fall into water, can find no way out, and then panic. Fear and shock sets in and they thrash around, rapidly exhausting themselves. If a dog is confident in its ability in the water, it is more likely to be able to swim around calmly until it finds a way out.

Many canine hydrotherapy centres encourage owners to take part in the sessions; sharing the exercise with their dog is beneficial in enhancing the trust between pet and owner. However, owners who are unsure may prefer to leave it to the professionals.

Can hydrotherapy be helpful in managing my dog’s weight?

Obesity in dogs one of the most common problems seen by vets: as well as reducing mobility, it can lead to heart disease, diabetes, joint problems and a shortened lifespan. Canine hydrotherapy is a very effective tool in managing weight loss in obese dogs when used in conjunction with your vet’s recommendation for a calorie controlled diet. A programme of hydrotherapy sessions can be especially useful for dog owners who are struggling to provide their pet with enough exercise. Because the non-impact and non-weight bearing exercise takes place in the supportive, buoyant environment of the hydro pool, it is kinder to muscles and joints than exercise on dry land and a swim session can provide a good workout for even the largest and most boisterous of dogs. As your dog gradually becomes fitter after exercising in the pool, you can increase your programme of land-based walks and runs to restore your dog to its optimum level of fitness.

Hydrotherapy pools for dogs

Hydrotherapy pools for dogs vary in design but basically consist of a large tank containing lukewarm water that is filtered and chlorinated for hygiene. Some are as big as small human swimming pools and are used for sessions where the hydrotherapist and/or the owner joins the dog in the water while others are designed as a large glass tank, rather like a large aquarium. Water jets may be used to create pulses of water to massage the animal or to set up a current for it to swim against. A treadmill can be installed in the base of the pool for controlled exercise and the water depth is adjustable to meet the requirements of the individual dog.

What to expect in a hydrotherapy session

When you book your dog’s first hydrotherapy session, you may well have been referred by your vet. If not, the hydrotherapist will want to check that your dog does not have any conditions that may be made worse by exercising in water, so it is best to ask for a referral from your vet before proceeding.

A typical hydrotherapy session routine is likely to take place as follows:

  • Your dog will be showered to remove loose hair and dirt from the coat
  • It will then be fitted with a harness or buoyancy aid
  • Your pet will be allowed to exercise in the water in short bursts with rest breaks between
  • Finally, your dog will be showered again on order to remove chlorine form the coat, shampooed if required and dried using a dryer, if this is tolerated, or towels.

Your hydrotherapist may accompany your pet into the pool or stand alongside while monitoring the activity programme, this will depend on the type of pool and the condition that is being treated.

Will the chlorine be harmful to my dog?

Canine hydrotherapy pools are chlorinated to the same level as those designed for human use in order to maintain high standards of hygiene and chlorine levels are checked regularly. After each hydrotherapy session, your pet’s coat will be rinsed with clean, warm water to remove as much chlorine as possible. Your dog should not suffer any side effects but, if you have any concerns, consult your vet.

My dog already swims in the river and the sea – is hydrotherapy in a pool going to be beneficial?

Many dogs will jump into rivers or the sea at any opportunity, but open waters are not necessarily the best place for dogs to exercise. There may be strong currents, the water may be cold or even polluted and there may be hidden underwater hazards. The colder temperatures of sea and river water will not have the same healing and strengthening effect as the warm water and controlled environment of a canine hydrotherapy pool.

Can I help my dog with hydrotherapy?

In a large canine hydrotherapy pool, it is often possible for owners to don a wetsuit and join in the hydrotherapy session with their pet, either on their own or working alongside a hydrotherapist. It can be reassuring for less confident dogs to have their owner alongside and many dogs and their owners find that hydrotherapy is a fun activity that not only improves fitness but also strengthens the bonds of trust between the dog and its owner.

What breeds of dog will benefit from canine hydrotherapy?

All breeds of dog, from tiny Chihuahuas to sturdy Newfoundlands, will benefit from exercising in
a hydrotherapy pool. Hydrotherapy is also suitable for dogs of all ages, from puppies of 5 months up to senior dogs of 16+ years.


Canine Hydrotherapy Association www.canine-hydrotherapy.org/
Physio Vet www.physio-vet.co.uk/dog-hydrotherapy/
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