- Not a substitute for professional veterinary help.
If you’ve ever watched a dog swim, or taken them to a beach or lake, then you know just how much they love spending time in, and around, the water. In addition to being good exercise for your dog, being in the water may also be beneficial to their health in several other ways. Enter hydrotherapy for dogs.
What is hydrotherapy? Essentially, it’s just like it sounds: therapeutic exercises performed in water. In addition to the benefits of therapeutic exercise, the buoyancy of water can help dogs with a number of conditions and goals. Dog hydrotherapy can be achieved a few different ways, which we’ll explore with the help of Dr. Gary Richter, veterinarian and founder of Ultimate Pet Nutrition. Note: As beneficial as hydrotherapy is for dogs, just like with a child, you should never leave a dog to swim unsupervised in the water.
4 Benefits of Hydrotherapy
Swimming itself is beneficial for dogs as it can be good for their heart and circulatory health, as well as other things. “Swimming is great for dogs,” says Dr. Richter, “it’s good for their cardiovascular health. It’s also good aerobic exercise and also very low impact, so it tends to not cause joint pain or, over time, joint damage. And for a lot of dogs, it’s just fun!”
It’s in large part because being in water is low impact and easier on joints that hydrotherapy can be a good way for dogs to address health conditions and injuries. Just like with people, the “weightlessness” type feeling we have in water allows people, dogs, and other animals to move in different ways that are much easier than on land. This movement ease can help senior dogs, dogs with arthritis, dogs recovering from injuries, and even help train athlete dogs.
Dog Hydrotherapy is Joint-Friendly Exercise
The National Library of Medicine’s study found that swimming helped dogs with range of motion more than walking on land alone, which is why it can be especially beneficial for dogs with arthritis and joint issues.
“Hydrotherapy really helps with range of motion, meaning getting those joints to move through the range that they’re supposed to move in,” says Dr. Richter. “Hydrotherapy allows dogs to exercise in a way that’s not going to hurt their joints; it gives them buoyancy, so it’s not putting a lot of pressure through their joints and it’s not causing more issues.”
Hydrotherapy is Good for Overweight Dogs
Hydrotherapy is also a potential option to help overweight dogs. Remember that “weightlessness” feeling from earlier? This is why an overweight dog may take to swimming and hydrotherapy more than land solutions. “Sometimes they don’t exercise because they’re so heavy, they can’t—it’s just too hard for them to do it. And when you put them in water, they’re buoyant, so they’re not having to bear their full weight anymore,” says Dr. Richter. “So all of a sudden, they can do stuff that they couldn’t do on land.”
But while the buoyancy can make bearing weight easier, it can still be a substantial work out. “We’ve all had the experience of, either at the beach or in a swimming pool, walking in, in water,” says Dr. Richter. “There’s a lot of resistance involved, much more so than there would be walking through air.” Ask any exercise trainer, resistance is great for getting in shape as it helps get the heart rate up and builds muscle.
Hydrotherapy Can Help Prevent Injuries
Hydrotherapy can also be preventative and may be a good option for athlete dogs. After all, the better shape an athletic dog is in, the less likely they are to sustain an injury.
“It’s also a way to condition a dog where they’re very unlikely to get injured during that therapy, because it’s so low impact. It just helps them be in better shape. So that way when they’re off doing whatever their particular activity is less likely to get hurt,” says Dr. Richter.
Hydrotherapy Can Help Alleviate Other Conditions
In addition to helping senior dogs, dogs with arthritis and joint problems, recovery from surgery or injury, weight issues, and conditioning and injury prevention with athlete dogs, there’s another demographic that may also find hydrotherapy beneficial as well: dogs with neurological issues.
Dr. Richter explains that though neurological dysfunction can stem from a number of issues, it usually is comprised of a combination of pain and weakness. Using an underwater treadmill (more on that in a minute) may help a dog with these issues walk with less pain and the buoyancy helps them stand up more easily.
The underwater treadmill hydrotherapy in particular can be a great option for dogs who aren’t walking normally due to their neurological issue, as they often need gait retraining: “Which basically means we have to teach them how to walk properly,” says Dr. Richter, “and, because of the buoyancy, and resistance, it’s a much, much easier thing to do in the water, because it almost becomes walking in slow motion in a way that you couldn’t be on land.”
Types of Hydrotherapy
There are different types of hydrotherapy, but these are the three most common: underwater treadmill, dog swimming pool facility, and whirlpool.
Here are the potential benefits of each type of dog hydrotherapy:
- Treadmill: cardiovascular health, muscle building, improving range of motion, perform exercise with less pain, and gait retraining.
- Swimming Pool: cardiovascular health, muscle building, circulatory health, aerobic exercise, fun for dog, and low impact exercise. Dr. Richter notes that dogs primarily swim using the front part of the body, so swimming may help issues a dog is experiencing in their front half—but may not be an option for issues in the back half, which move less during swimming.
- Whirlpool: circulation and loosening muscles and joints. “Because of the warmth of the water,” says Dr. Richter, “it’s bringing blood to the outer surfaces of the body.” This helps promote circulation to the joints and loosens things up to feel better.
Is Hydrotherapy for Dogs Safe?
Putting your dog in the water can sound a little dangerous, but in a professional setting, there may be some extra eyes to help you supervise your dog as they swim. In fact, Dr. Richter says a vet tech is always in the water with the dog at his facility. “There’s always a hand on the dog. While they’re swimming—except for really, really strong swimmers—they’re all wearing a flotation device.”
How long and how often you should take your dog to hydrotherapy really depends on the dog and the reasons why they are there, but typically Dr. Richter doesn’t recommend beyond twice a week to avoid tiredness and soreness. “The thing about any kind of therapy with dogs, whether it’s hydrotherapy, or anything else is, it requires the cooperation of the dog,” says Dr. Richter. “If I injure myself, and I wind up going to a physical therapist, they’re going to tell me to push through the pain because it’s good for me, and I’ll do it. You can’t make a dog do that. If you can’t make it fun, the dog is not going to participate. As such, we wind up using a lot of peanut butter!”
Can You Do Hydrotherapy At Home?
Hydrotherapy may sound like a good practice for your dog and their needs, but what if it’s out of your budget or you’re not near a facility? Can you perform hydrotherapy at home? Well, it’s a little tricky.
It’s one thing if you have a swimming pool at home where you can get in the pool with your dog in a floatation device, but otherwise, according to Dr. Richter, it’s difficult to achieve the benefits of hydrotherapy with say a kiddie pool, dog swimming pool, or bathtub, unless the dog is very small.
Hydrotherapy is an excellent option for dogs needing rehabilitation from an injury or surgery, as well as dogs with health issues from arthritis to neurological dysfunction. And while, like swimming, it’s good exercise for your dog, it may not be right for your dog or for you, depending on a number of factors from dogs who hate the water to budget.
If hydrotherapy isn’t an option, there are other helpful things you can try. “Generally speaking, if the dog has mobility problems, then rather than taking them out for a really long walk that might cause them to get tired or be painful, a better plan would be to take them out for shorter but more frequent walks,” says Dr. Richter. “So maybe three, four walks over the course of the day, but just not for that long so they’re not getting tired. That’s a good way to do it.”
You can also try other types of physical therapy exercises with your dog at home to help with strengthening. “I would encourage people, even if they don’t have somebody in their area, to reach out to somebody who’s trained in canine rehabilitation and talk to them about what might be appropriate for their dog,” says Dr. Richter, “because, just like with exercise with people, if you do the wrong exercise for your body, you can get hurt. Obviously, nobody wants to do that with the dog. So you really need a little bit of guidance from a professional.”
However, if hydrotherapy is the right fit for you and your dog, check out the Association of Canine Water Therapy to find a location near you.