How Hydrotherapy and Swimming Can Benefit Dogs

By PetMD Editorial on Sep. 1, 2016

By Aly Semigran

Swimming provides humans with plenty of benefits, from cooling off on a hot summer day to staying in shape. And it turns out our canine companions may also reap rewards from time spent in the water.

Whether you want to keep your working dog in shape, ease your pup’s arthritic pain, or get him back on his feet after surgery, getting your dog in the water may be just the thing he needs.

Benefits of Water Therapy for Dogs

There are a few reasons why a pet parent may consider taking their dog to an aquatic therapy facility, be it of their own volition, or under the recommendation of their veterinarian.

“Water therapy is beneficial in a variety of different areas,” explains Dr. Jonathan Block, DVM, of Water4Dogs Canine Rehabilitation Center in New York. “From a preventative perspective, hydrotherapy is good for fitness, body condition, and a great source of aerobic exercise that is low impact on the bones and joints. It is a great tool to help your dog stay in optimal shape.”

When it comes to fitness, strength, and conditioning, aquatic therapy is an exercise that can be done year-round for dogs as young as a year old. For instance, when the pavement in the wintertime is lined with ice or salt, a dog who is used to working, or running alongside his owner, can stay in shape thanks to water exercise.

Another common reason why dogs are brought in for aquatic therapy is to help them recover following surgery (for something like an ACL tear), or to help arthritic dogs work their joints, maintain muscle mass, and move around comfortably all while minimizing discomfort.

“When dogs are not moving, they can lose pretty profound muscle within six or seven weeks,” says Lee Deaton of Natural Healing Whole Dog Wellness in West Chicago, Illinois. “The beautiful thing about swimming—even with an older dog who has muscle loss—is they can exercise in a completely non-weight-bearing environment.”

The resistance and buoyancy that water provides, makes it a great exercise environment for pets recovering from injury or for those suffering from joint pain, says Tari Kern, DVM, of Pawsitive Steps Rehabilitation & Therapy for Pets in Rochester Hills, Michigan. “Water is denser than air, so movement through the water and the resistance to that movement helps to work the muscles quite well, she says. “The duration of exercise needed in water may be less than [the duration] needed for similar exercise on land.”

Different Types of Aquatic Exercise for Dogs

Each aquatic facility is different, as are the needs of each individual dog. Some facilities simply include pools, while others host higher-tech equipment such as underwater treadmills.

Christina Fuoco, VMD, CVA, CCRT of WAG: Whole Animal Gym in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania explains that an underwater treadmill features a treadmill that is enclosed in a tank of water. The tank fills up to an individual pet’s needs and drains easily when the exercise is done. The underwater treadmill provides buoyancy while the dog walks, taking the pressure off aching limbs and joints.

Once the tank is filled to the appropriate amount for the dog, the treadmill will start. “A pet rehabilitating from spinal surgery may only walk at 0.5mph,” Fuoco says of the varying speeds of the equipment. “A fit dog who is trying to improve their conditioning, may run at 2.5mph.” The resistance provided by the water greatly increases the benefits of exercising even at these relatively slow speeds.

The majority of canine aquatic centers feature hydrotherapy pools in which dogs can do laps, fetch and retrieve balls thrown into the pool, or simply learn how to swim with the assistance of a licensed staff member. Each facility will have different methods of exercise within the lap pool, depending on the dog and his needs.

Some dogs may need to work out in warm water as opposed to cool water. Block explains that colder water is typically used for athletic dogs who are training or exercising because it helps them maintain a normal, balanced body temperature. Warm water helps loosen tight muscles, and is used more often for therapy or recovery sessions.

The amount of time dogs spend in the pool is entirely dependent on veterinary recommendations. Beth Taylor of The Puddle: Pet AquaFitness & Nutrition in South Elgin, Illinois says that most swim sessions can range from 10 minutes to a half an hour.

“We start dogs off on the low end if they are presurgical or postsurgical, if they have injuries they are recovering from, or if they are obese or unfit in any way,” Taylor says. “We monitor heart rate to determine when to rest.”

Weight Loss in Dogs: How Swimming Helps

Fuoco notes that one of the biggest advantages to having dogs hit the pool is the weight loss potential that come with moving in the water. 

“Having that extra weight on the joints when we’re trying to get them moving can be tough,” she says. “If we have them in the water and we have that buoyancy, we get to work those muscles without putting much stress on the joints. That translates to [the dogs] feeling more fit and more conditioned.”

In addition to spending time in the water, Fuoco recommends that pet parents keep a food diary and an exercise diary for their dogs to keep track of their dog’s weight loss journey.

What If My Dog Doesn’t Know How to Swim?

“Not every pet is a natural swimmer,” says Kern. “Just like people, pets may really need to be taught how to swim.”

Each facility has different methods for teaching dogs to swim or making them less fearful. “The big thing that I encourage people to do is make sure their dogs feels comfortable in the water,” Fuoco adds.

But, whatever the training may be, safety and comfort is always key. Pet owners should read their dog’s signals and do what’s best for their pet’s mental and physical health at all times. “Dogs should never be forced to swim if they are scared, as it may result in injury for the pet or the person or both,” says Kern. “If your veterinarian believes that swimming would benefit your pet, but he is anxious about water, it is best to seek professional guidance.”

Risks of Aquatic Exercise and Hydrotherapy for Dogs

While the majority of veterinarians agree that hydrotherapy and swimming both offer many benefits, there are some risks pet parents should be aware of in the water. Some of the most common include recurrent ear infections from too much water in the ears, the agitation of certain skin conditions, and excessive fatigue that may lead to drowning if dogs are not monitored properly.

Chlorine use in pools may also raise a red flag for pet parents, but the chemical should not be a cause for concern. Chlorine toxicity in pets is dose dependent, and pools that properly monitor chlorine levels and dilute chlorine properly are safe for both dogs and humans. Many aquatic facilities also have UV filtration systems which lower the need for high levels of chlorine in pools.

Block states that dogs with previous health conditions should follow veterinary care instructions and recover fully before hitting the pool. “Dogs with urinary tract infections, ear infections, skin infections, or open wounds really should allow these conditions to heal before engaging in hydrotherapy,” he says.

If dogs are coughing or seem to be having trouble taking in air, they should be pulled from the water immediately for observation and rest. Facility staff members should monitor a dog’s water intake at all time because water intoxication or even pneumonia could occur if a dog ingests or inhales too much water.

“Pets should never be left unattended in the water and activity should be stopped immediately if signs of stress are observed,” says Kern. “Pets who are anxious or stressed may experience increased blood pressure and increased heart rates. The goal of hydrotherapy is gentle exercise and anything that is observed contrary to this plan means the activity must stop immediately.”

It is also important to note that exercise on an underwater treadmill and swimming are very different activities that work different groups of muscles. The two activities are not interchangeable. Make sure to follow your veterinarian’s recommendations as to which would be best for your dog.

Image:  via Shutterstock

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