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Canine Hydrotherapy: What Is It And What Are The Benefits?

Alternative treatment methods like hydrotherapy are growing more and more popular with pet owners as they look for new ways to keep pets happy and healthy throughout their lives. Learn more about hydrotherapy

01/05/2023
Canine Hydrotherapy

Whether it’s an early morning dip in the sea or a relaxing soak in the bubbling hot waters of a jacuzzi, humans have long appreciated the therapeutic benefits of water. Many owners can testify that their pets enjoy a doggy paddle just as much as they do. It is only in more recent years, however, that the benefits of water therapy for dogs in controlled and monitored settings has been recognized and seriously studied.

What is hydrotherapy?

The use of hydrotherapy to soothe the body and mind stretches back over 2,000 years ago to the days of Ancient Greece. Bathers of old recognized that swimming in open water, pools, mineral baths, and saunas could provide comfort for stressed joints as well while helping to heal injuries and relax the mind.

What is hydrotherapy for dogs?

If your dog loves muddy puddles or chasing balls into the surf without stopping to ‘paws,’ you may start to believe they’ve discovered canine hydrotherapy on their own. Therapeutic hydrotherapy, however, is much more than water-based play. It was the horse and greyhound-racing industries that first discovered its benefits for animals. Letting horses and dogs walk in water helped them recover from injuries while keeping them in tip-top condition for their next outing on the racetrack. With the invention of underwater treadmills, the use of hydrotherapy soon spread to the general dog population. Its mix of buoyancy, viscosity, resistance, and hydrostatic pressure provides a beneficial form of physical therapy. Joints and muscles are protected while the dogs reap the benefits of recuperative exercise, including pain relief, anti-inflammatory effects, and improved cardiovascular health. 

How do dogs benefit from hydrotherapy?

Canine water therapy brings a whole raft of benefits for dogs, whether it’s relieving the pain of arthritis or helping broken bones to heal. It is especially beneficial for dogs that are suffering from torn cruciate ligaments, hip dysplasia, discomfort related to limb amputation, degenerative joint diseases, and those who have recently undergone any form of major surgery. A soak in a water pool can also alleviate neurological problems and help with chronic medical conditions such as Cushing’s disease.

Recreational water therapy for dogs is also an excellent way to keep active dogs in shape. Physical conditioning exercises in water increase stamina and endurance, strengthen muscles, and help minimize the chances of muscle strain and joint injuries. Exercising in water can even deliver better results than when dogs undertake similar exercises out of the water. For example, trotting on an underwater treadmill for two miles provides the equivalent benefit to running four to five miles on dry land.

Despite the ubiquity of the doggie paddle, not all canines take to water. According to the American Kennel Club breeds like the Bulldog have an especially tough time staying afloat. Long-bodied, short-legged breeds like the Dachshund aren’t strong swimmers either.

What types of water therapy are available for dogs?

There are three main types of water therapy for dogs. All use water at a comfortable and therapeutic temperature between 86 and 89 degrees Fahrenheit. They differ in terms of the equipment and process used. Your vet will advise you on which form of canine water therapy is best for your pet’s unique needs.

Pool therapy

Pool-therapy-for-dogs

Swimming sessions in a hydrotherapy pool are ideal if your dog suffers from arthritis or has a degenerative joint disease such as hip or elbow dysplasia. Canine water therapy in a pool also delivers a good cardiovascular workout and burns calories. It’s a great choice if your dog has a tendency to overindulge on treats! Dog therapy pools vary widely in size and depth, so it’s a good idea for dogs to wear a flotation device or at least a harness when swimming in one. A therapist should always be present to monitor the dog’s movements and progress. The downside of pool therapy, however, is that swimming is really the only form of exercise that can be performed. Other types of water therapy allow for a wider variety of activities.

Underwater treadmills

If you like hitting the gym for a cardio exercise on the treadmill, why not let your dog enjoy similar exercise while experiencing the benefits of hydrotherapy. Underwater treadmills are perhaps the most common form of hydrotherapy for dogs. A treadmill is enclosed in a glass or plastic chamber. The dog walks in, the door is sealed shut, and a controlled flow of water enters the chamber. This water stops just above the dog’s hip joints. As the treadmill starts to move slowly, the dog starts walking. This walking motion strengthens joint muscles while removing the high-impact stress of walking on hard ground. Pressure on the joints is removed and walking is more comfortable for dogs with painful arthritis or those who are recovering from surgery. The therapist can tailor any session to the dog’s exact needs by controlling the speed, incline, water level, and duration of the treadmill session. This means different areas can be targeted to build and increase muscle mass while re-educating the dog’s walking gait and proprioception (sense of its own motion). Underwater treadmills are a particularly kind and effective way of managing the exercise needs of geriatric dogs.

Whirlpool therapy

The biggest benefit of whirlpool therapy (or jacuzzis for canines) is pain relief. It is especially effective when dogs are recovering from major surgical procedures. The dog is supported by a harness and slowly lowered into the water where warm jet streams gently massage injured muscles and wound sites.

There are several qualities to look out for when selecting a flotation device for your dog. Owners should make sure to select a life vest or jacket that’s reflective, adjustable, durable, and equipped with a handle for easily lifting and guiding dogs.

Water therapy at home: pros and cons

Hydrotherapy for dogs can be expensive but, if recommended by a vet, is potentially covered as an extra or add-on by pet insurers like Animalia. It is possible, however, to do some form of hydrotherapy for dogs at home or when out and about. Recreational swimming and paddling are great fun and exercise for dogs who love the water. For some smaller breeds, you can even make use of a kiddie pool in your backyard or driveway! 

But, remember that not all dogs are natural swimmers. Rescue organizations are often called upon to haul drowning dogs out of water when their sense of adventure overcomes their survival instinct! If you are letting your dog swim in large bodies of water such as the ocean or a lake, make sure they have a properly fitted flotation jacket. If your pet has specific needs, letting them swim or play in water unsupervised may make injuries or illnesses worse. Dedicated canine water therapy should always take place in safe environments where the water level and temperature are properly controlled.

Can all dogs benefit from hydrotherapy?

Any form of canine hydrotherapy should be avoided if your pet has an underlying disease or an open wound. Also, it’s not a good idea to let dogs suffering from ear problems go into water. Water may get inside their ears, causing discomfort and aggravating the condition. Dogs that are nervous about water or who don’t enjoy being immersed should never be forced to swim. The psychological damage of such an experience can have lifelong effects. Whether you are encouraging your dog into open water or starting a hydrotherapy session, if they show any signs of anxiety, the session should be stopped immediately. The stress of the experience can raise your dog’s blood pressure and heart rate, potentially increasing the risk of a cardiovascular emergency.

If your pet suffers from painful muscle and joint conditions, is recovering from injury or an operation, or simply needs some extra exercise to burn a few excess calories, your vet may recommend a course of hydrotherapy. Animalia will cover the cost within the dog insurance coverage it offers. Get your quote today. 


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