Canine Hydrotherapy, sometimes called aquatic therapy, has increasingly become an important part of physical rehabilitation alongside traditional veterinary treatments. Hydrotherapy works to strengthen muscles using the natural resistance of currents when moving in water in a variety of ways (walking, swimming and/or standing). Therapeutic exercise is carried out in warm water in either a pool or underwater treadmill and can be a key factor in minimising muscle wastage that can occur during long periods of immobilization due to injury. Hydrotherapy provides a safe way to mobilise the body in a non-weight bearing environment and can help to improve cardiovascular fitness, proprioception, core strength, gait issues, help with weight loss and the ability to flex and extend muscles in the legs. Dogs competing in agility sports often utilize hydrotherapy as a part of their fitness regime as it is a low-impact way to exercise the joints without the risk of injury, and dogs struggling with obesity may find that hydrotherapy puts less strain on their body and will allow them to lose weight in a comfortable way.
There are a variety of conditions that can benefit from the use of hydrotherapy – orthopaedic, neurological, soft tissue injuries, post-surgery recovery, degenerative diseases of the joints, age-related mobility issues and obesity issues to name a few. Depending on the needs of the dog, use of a swimming pool or underwater treadmill may be used. Swimming in a warm water pool avoids the stressful impact that comes from walking or running on hard ground, while continuing to work the muscles of the body that are used for everyday movement. Blood circulation and blood flow to muscles in increased when immersed in warm water and this helps muscles to relax which in turn reduces pain and stiffness. The hydrostatic pressure of the water has an anti-inflammatory effect as it encourages fluid in the affected areas to dissipate, which relieves pressure. Because water provides resistance when moving through it, muscle mass is built in a pain-free way. Specific limbs can be targeted to build up muscle where it is most needed…older dogs who have weakness in their back ends may benefit from this type of exercise over longer walks outside. An underwater treadmill may be used for dogs who are not yet ready for the rigors of swimming on their own in a pool. It is especially useful in rehabilitating dogs who have experienced a limb injury or surgery as the amount of water in the treadmill can be controlled, as can the speed of the treadmill, which helps to build up the ability of the dog to put weight on the recovering area in an appropriate way, and build up its strength with support. Hydrotherapy professionals have been trained to understand the properties of water as they relate to rehabilitation needs and utilize this knowledge in designing an effective program for dogs on an individual basis.
A comparison of the benefits of using a swimming pool for therapy versus and underwater treadmill can be found in a study by Chioquine et al. Therapeutic swimming was found to be totally weight bearing and provided maximum range of motion for the joints. It improved core and trunk strength along with cardiovascular fitness and built overall endurance. Use of an underwater treadmill was found to be only 60% weight bearing and results in an improved range of motion over land activities. It works well for proprioceptive gait training and rehabilitation for neurological patients and it helps to improve overall balance. Lean muscles are built more readily using the treadmill and it works much better for dogs who may not be totally comfortable in the pool water as there is more control and support provided.
The basic properties of water that help make hydrotherapy and effective treatment protocol include: relative density, buoyancy, viscosity, hydrostatic pressure, and surface tension. Relative density can be defined as the ratio of the density of a substance (the dog) to the density of a reference material (the water). In deeper water less weight will be carried on the limbs, but it is dependent on the muscle and fat content of the dog. The depth of the water in an underwater treadmill may need to be adjusted to lessen the impact and strain on the dog who is using it. The Buoyancy of water is what pushes a dog upwards with a force that is equal to the weight of whatever amount of fluid it displaced. Utilizing the buoyancy effect of water helps put minimal strain on joints allowing a dog to exercising more comfortable and for longer periods. Range of motion and muscle strength increases and damage to soft tissue decreases. Viscosity, which measures the frictional resistance between molecules of a substance, provides resistance when moving in water. This allows a more intense workout to occur in a shorter time than can happen on land and provides greater support for joints and limbs that may be unstable. Tripping, slipping, stumbling etc. do not really happen when walking slowly in water and so dogs who are recovering from injuries and who may be in pain will benefit from the resistance that water has to offer. Hydrostatic pressure, provided constantly when submerged in water, helps to reduce swelling, and stimulates sensory receptors in the skin, decreasing pain perception. Understanding that surface tension is higher at the surface of the water than it is underneath (meaning it is easier for a dog to move under the water than it is to move limbs to break the surface) helps in determining the depth of water to use when working on an underwater treadmill to make movement less of a strain for the dog.
Hydrotherapy has a definite place in the treatment of our dogs. Whether it is to help aging dogs cope with degenerative joint issues, young dogs suffering from growing pains to strengthen muscles, dogs to build up lost muscle after a hip replacement surgery, an obese dog lose weight, an agility competitor build cardiovascular fitness or simply to improve the emotional well-being of a dog the benefits are wide-spread.
I have seen how the use of hydrotherapy treatments can help a senior dog suffering from joint disease. My previous dog, a springer spaniel, was a very athletic dog in her younger years and began to suffer from the effects of osteoarthritis at about age 11. It became increasingly difficult for her to walk longer distances and she stopped running altogether. Stairs became a laborious process and she experienced loss of muscle mass in her back end that at times cause her to stumble and have difficulty rising on her own. She had weekly underwater treadmill sessions, along with laser therapy, at a nearby veterinary clinic specialising in rehabilitation. While it was known that there would be no ‘rehabilitating’ from this particular condition, Janey was always more comfortable and mobile in the days following a session. As her eyesight began to fade and what I believe was a mild case of canine cognitive disorder began to show, the treatment sessions became too stressful for her and so we stopped. I do believe that the therapy helped her exercise in a more comfortable way, and provided an outlet for her mentally and physically that she could no longer achieve by walking and running on land. My current dog suffered from Hypertrophic Osteodystrophy in her first year with me and had week-long periods of pain and immobility that she has since grown out of. She is however at risk for joint issues as she ages and hydrotherapy will be something that will likely be a part of her life as she ages as well. Pet Insurance can help cover the cost of treatments such as these if they are needed at any point in your dog's life. It can be worth it to consider looking into to getting a policy that will cover the costs associated with a service such as hydrotherapy...as our dogs age, and the risk of joint injuries and diseases increases it could come in handy down the line.
If you think your dog may benefit from hydrotherapy sessions, speak to your vet about getting a referral to a rehabilitation clinic nearby.
“Why Hydrotherapy?” Canine Hydrotherapy Association: http://www.canine-hydrotherapy.org/why-hydrotherapy/
“Use of Canine Hydrotherapy as Part of a Rehabilitation Program” The Veterinary Nurse: https://www.theveterinarynurse.com/review/article/use-of-canine-hydrotherapy-as-part-of-a-rehabilitation-programme
“Hydrotherapy in Canine Physical Rehab” By Janice Huntingford (2018): https://ivcjournal.com/hydrotherapy-canine-physical-rehab/
“Canine Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation” In Aquatic Therapy. Chiquoine et al, (2018)