Dogs Canine Hydrotherapy

Published on February 23rd, 2018 | by Debbie Martin


Canine Hydrotherapy and its benefits

Hydrotherapy is a concept that’s been around for awhile, but which is being taken more and more seriously in both human and animal medicine.  It comes from two Greek words – for water, and for healing.  Being immersed in water will help to take the strain off an animal’s body, as water will support a great deal more easily than air.  If you’re recovering from a severe injury, then you might end up taking those early steps inside a tank of water before moving out into the open air.

Dogs might benefit just as much from hydrotherapy as humans.  Unlike cats, they’re natural swimmers – and so they’ll likely enjoy the exercise they’re able to get inside a hydrotherapy facility.

Hydrotherapy tends to be carried out by a team of several vets or trained therapists, each focussed on delivering a great swimming experience for the dog, and helping to monitor and facilitate their improvement.

Why is swimming better than walking?

When your dog moves through water, they’re surrounded by a material which provides a resistance to gravity.  That’s why an object will sink a lot slower through water than it might do through air.  If you imagine a dog’s joints falling in slow motion, meeting the resistance of each step and then bearing the weight of the upper body, you might see how minimising these impacts might help to protect the joint.

What sort of dogs might benefit?

If your dog is arthritic, or suffers from hip dysplasia or a cruciate injury, then you’ll be faced with a dilemma.  You’ll need to control the weight of the animal as a priority – putting on weight will place more strain on the effected joints, and accelerate the degradation of the dog’s condition.  If the dog is experiencing terrible pain every time they go for a walk, then they’ll be less inclined to go for one.  The result is a vicious cycle, at the end of which is a dog that’s miserable and immobile.

This is where the no-impact nature of hydrotherapy becomes very useful.  It allows us to maintain the previous exercise levels of the stricken dog without placing an undue strain on the effected limbs.

What exactly happens during a hydrotherapy session?

Naturally, you won’t be able to simply take your dog for a swim at the local leisure centre.  And taking it for a swim in the sea, or a local lake, isn’t ideal either.  A specialist hydrotherapy facility will offer suitably shallow water, and a lifejacket for your dog.  The temperature of the water will be maintained at a relatively balmy thirty degrees, and it’ll be sanitised to ensure that harmful microbes aren’t able to grow in it.

The warmth of the water serves two main purposes.  Firstly, it helps your dog to feel better.  Secondly, it helps to keep the muscles relaxed.  This is because the blood vessels near the surface of the skin will expand, allowing for an increased range of movement and a lack of stiffness (for much the same reason that ‘warming up’ before exercise will help to avoid injury).

For all of the benefits of swimming we’ve just described, it’s not the default form of movement for a dog.  An injured dog will need to re-learn to walk, and an arthritic dog will need to retain the musculature necessary for walking.   Fortunately, hydrotherapy allows for a dog to practice walking while still maintaining many of the benefits of submersion.

A dog might be allowed to use an ‘aquatic treadmill’, which is much the same as an ordinary treadmill, except that it’s built into a small tank.  The tank is filled slightly with water, and the therapist is able to observe the dog’s range of motion through the glass sides of the tank.  The treadmill’s speed can be controlled, allowing the therapist to find the precise gait for the patient.  It’s an exceptionally useful tool when it comes to re-acclimatising the dog to dry land, as the water level can be made shallower and shallower as the dog’s progression unfolds.

At the end of each session, the therapist will ensure that the dog is appropriately cleaned, and talk the owner through the dog’s prognosis, before returning them to the outside world.

What’s wrong with hydrotherapy?

The major flaw with hydrotherapy is the cost.  Of course, all of this expertise and equipment is a lot more expensive than a collar and a lead.  Hydrotherapy should therefore not be considered as a permanent alternative for regular walking, but as a supplement for it.

If your dog is recovering from a serious injury, then they might not be able to move straight from inactivity to walking.  Overcoming this transition may prove tricky – but once it’s done, the dog will be able to easily progress through the remainder of its recovery, without the need for specialist swimming pools and other contraptions.

In Conclusion

Hydrotherapy is a technique which displays enormous promise – and, being a relatively young practice, it’s likely to grow more effective with each passing year.  Quantifying its benefits is tricky, but a host of dog owners whose pets have gone through hydrotherapy are willing to discuss its benefits.

Of these, perhaps the most important is an improved state of mind.  Dogs are naturally mobile creatures, who require regular exercise and stimulation if they’re to be mentally healthy.  Exercise also helps to encourage the release of adrenaline, which acts as a painkiller, and endorphins, which provide a natural feed-good sensation.  Any dog which is denied these things is likely to become miserable, and feel the painful symptoms of their joint problems more acutely. Hydrotherapy offers them a means of exerting themselves without risking pain or further injury, and so depressed dogs with skeletal disorders will tend to show signs of improvement very quickly.

For these reasons, it’s easy to recommend hydrotherapy – especially in the case of arthritic dogs, or those recovering from severe injury.  Striking the right balance between exercise and pain relief can be tricky in such dogs – and hydrotherapy offers a promising solution that compromises on neither.

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About the Author

Debbie has worked for Beeston Animal Health for a number of years and although generally involved with the marketing these days she has a great deal of knowledge on many things to do with small animals.

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