Hydrotherapy for Dogs

By PetMD Editorial on Apr. 25, 2019

Hydrotherapy for dogs is a type of physical therapy where dogs perform certain exercises in water at a rehabilitation center under the supervision and direction of a certified hydrotherapist.

Hydrotherapy for dogs can only be done at a rehabilitation clinic under the supervision of a certified hydrotherapist, oftentimes after you receive a referral from your veterinarian. Do not attempt hydrotherapy for dogs on your own under any circumstance.

There are canine hydrotherapy centers popping up all over the United States, and many veterinarians see hydrotherapy as beneficial in certain cases. Some of these benefits include improved injury recovery, weight loss and increased mobility.

If you think your dog can benefit from hydrotherapy, first talk with your veterinarian about whether dog hydrotherapy is the right option to pursue for your pet. If it is, they can point you to a reputable dog hydrotherapy facility.

Here’s an explanation of what canine hydrotherapy involves, how it works, what conditions it can treat and the two types of therapy available, as well as some precautions.

What Is Hydrotherapy for Dogs?

“In the most general terms, hydrotherapy is exercise in an aquatic environment [that is] used to achieve functional goals in rehabilitation,” says Dr. Molly Flaherty, DVM, a staff veterinarian specializing in physical rehabilitation medicine at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine in Philadelphia.

“Hydrotherapy rehabilitation helps modify soft tissues—ligaments, tendons and muscles—to improve a dog’s ambulatory mechanisms and make him or her as comfortable as possible,” says Dr. Francisco DiPolo, DVM, CVA, CCRT and director of Water4Dogs Rehabilitation Center in New York City, which offers dog hydrotherapy to its canine patients.

This doesn’t just involve strength training, he notes; it also helps find and correct compensatory movements—like a limp—that could cause further injury or harm.

What Conditions Can Canine Hydrotherapy Treat and How Does It Work?

Dr. DiPolo says that veterinarians typically prescribe hydrotherapy to either promote healing after surgery or to treat muscular or neurological conditions.

At the most basic level, dog hydrotherapy is used to strengthen muscles and improve range of motion. Hydrotherapy’s success in these areas can be attributed to two factors, according to Dr. Dr. DiPolo. “It allows us to target the muscles we want to strengthen or stretch while simultaneously minimizing discomfort.”

“When pets are in water, they become buoyant, which means they have less weight to carry,” which makes these movements less painful and helps dogs go through the full range of motion, he says. Water also adds a level of resistance to the exercises, making a dog’s muscles work harder and build strength faster.

Dr. Flaherty adds that dog hydrotherapy is typically done in warm water, which helps dogs relax and keeps them from experiencing muscle spasms.

These benefits can be applied to many physical ailments; canine hydrotherapy has been used to treat dogs with musculoskeletal pain, arthritis, orthotic problems and neurologic issues.

Sometimes, dog hydrotherapy is used in conjunction with pet pain medications and joint and hip dog supplements as part of an overall treatment plan designed to improve a dog’s mobility.

Hydrotherapy Can Help With Weight Loss

Hydrotherapy can also be beneficial for weight loss. “Exercise can be really taxing if a dog is carrying extra weight, which can make it very difficult to start that dog on a healthy path. Hydrotherapy lessens their weight burden and makes exercising more comfortable, so it’s easier for a dog that previously did not exercise to get started,” Dr. Flaherty explains. She adds that weight loss is often one of the reasons that a dog owner might pursue hydrotherapy, especially if their dog is very overweight.

“Keeping dogs mobile is extremely important to a dog’s health,” Dr. Flaherty says. “It helps with their energy and it helps them feel good.”

Types of Dog Hydrotherapy

There are two main types of hydrotherapy for dogs: underwater treadmills and pool-based therapies.

Dog Water Treadmills

“Underwater treadmills are probably the best-known type of hydrotherapy,” Dr. Flaherty says. To get started, the dog walks onto a treadmill in an empty tank; then, the tank is filled to the desired level with warm water.

“What’s great about underwater treadmills is that they allow for a lot of adjustments, depending on the dog’s needs. For example, if the treadmill tank is filled to about hip-level, it’s as though more than half of the dog’s body weight has been taken away, which is great if he has painful joints,” Dr. Flaherty explains.

Dr. Flaherty says that therapists can also add or remove water, change the pace of the belt and otherwise optimize therapy for each individual animal. “Customizability is key,” she notes.

Pool-Based Hydrotherapy for Dogs

There are also pool-based therapies. “I would recommend this type of therapy if any type of weight-bearing is painful for the dog,” Dr. Flaherty says. “It’s also nice for dogs who have multi-joint arthritis—the buoyancy just helps them relax.”

Pool-based therapies are also helpful if a dog has forearm issues because their forearm range of motion while swimming is greatly exaggerated.

Dog Hydrotherapy Precautions

As mentioned above, hydrotherapy can often be prescribed after surgery to help with recovery. Dr. Flaherty says that after surgery, a dog usually has to wait 10-14 days before beginning hydrotherapy, until the sutures or staples are out and the incision has closed. “We don’t want to interfere with the healing of the incision or risk contamination,” she says.

There are also some breeds of dogs for which hydrotherapy might be a little more difficult. Brachycephalic breeds, like Bulldogs and Pugs, might have more trouble than others due to the breathing issues that stem from their flat faces.

However, Dr. Flaherty notes that any dog undergoing hydrotherapy will be under very close supervision. “For these dogs, we might start them on the treadmill because there’s much more control, but hydrotherapy is prescribed on a case-by-case basis, so we wouldn’t suggest it for a dog that couldn’t handle it.”

Contraindications of Canine Hydrotherapy

Dr. DiPolo notes that canine hydrotherapy may not be a good fit for some dogs.

“For pets with unstable spines, swimming can put a lot of stress on the cartilage between the vertebrae. If you’re not careful, a dog with a little bit of back pain could become paralyzed,” says Dr. DiPolo.

He adds that the same goes for certain joint and ligament injuries. “The way dogs kick in a pool, as well as how they get in and out of the pool, can break injured ligaments completely, which then requires surgical intervention.”

Dogs with cardiovascular problems also might not be a good fit for dog hydrotherapy. “In this case, excessive aerobic activity can be detrimental,” Dr. DiPolo says.

While these contraindications could be quite serious, Dr. DiPolo doesn’t want to make pet owners overly paranoid. “If your pet is has some type of injury, just be sure to go to a legitimate hydrotherapy center. It’s always good to have an expert supervising therapy to minimize complications.”

By: Kate Hughes

Featured Image: iStock.com/BanksPhotos

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