Water therapy for dogs

October 5th, 2008

Pet owners are constantly searching for new and exciting ways to improve their canines health and fitness. Eliza Tickle caught up with leading animal therapists to dig up the facts on animal hydrotherapy/water therapy for dogs.

Hydrotherapy, formerly called hydropathy, is one of the oldest forms of medical treatment but with today’s advanced methods and machinery, it is still being used for canine rehabilitation and to improve the general health and fitness of dogs.

Hydrotherapy involves the use of water for soothing pain and treating disease, said Joanne Woolley, senior therapist from the Aquapaws Canine Rehabilitation Centre in Melbourne, Victoria.

An accredited member of the Pet Industry Association of Australia (PIAA), Woolley received Hawksmoor Hydrotherapy Certification in the United Kingdom (2005) and VetHab Canine Rehabilitation Certification in the United States (2006).

Also known as aquatic exercise or aquatherapy, the most common or traditional form of hydrotherapy is swimming, Woolley told Dogs Life.

Swimming is not only an enjoyable form of exercise providing environmental enrichment for pooches, she said, but hydrotherapy is beneficial to dogs recovering from injury and surgery or for those with degenerative diseases.

The team at Aquapaws Canine Rehabilitation Centre provides physical conditioning for performance dogs and customised therapy for pre and post-operative conditions, obesity and arthritic management programs as well as pain management therapy.

Hydrotherapy can be used for rehabilitation after injury or surgery under professional supervision, Woolley said. It can also be used for fitness and is a great cross-training exercise for performance dogs.

Woolley listed a variety of canine conditions that can be treated by hydrotherapy including arthritis, orthopaedic conditions (such as cruciate disease), neurological conditions (such as disc disease), muscle tears, strains and sprains and general muscle weakness.

Our goal is to return all patients back to the best possible function and quality of life, she said.

Exercise without stress

Woolley explained that hydrotherapy is non-weight bearing due to the buoyancy of the water, so this therapy supports weak patients and removes joint stress while exercising the muscle.

Swimming builds physical strength and cardiovascular stamina without adding stress to arthritic or injured joints and tendons, she said. Weightless exercise strengthens and tones muscles without the stresses and strains of exercising on hard ground.

The non-weight bearing nature of hydrotherapy can also benefit a dogs circulation and movement range.

The hydrostatic pressure applied by the water can assist in reducing swelling by causing body fluid to move away from the affected area, she said. It also helps to reduce muscle spasm, enhance circulation and improve range of movement.

A workout for your dog

Although hydrotherapy is non-weight bearing and places little stress on muscles and joints, this therapy still provides a challenging workout, Woolley said.

The pressure of the water on the chest makes breathing more difficult, she said. The lungs have to work harder and therefore there is improvement in the function of the respiratory system.

Hydrotherapy can also be a challenging cardiovascular workout.

The heart has to work harder in order to meet the increased demand for nutrients by all the muscles which are being worked, she said.

The Underwater Treadmill

One of the main hydrotherapies used at Aquapaws is the Underwater Treadmill. This device is used for strengthening muscles in an environment that places little pressure on a canines joints due to the buoyancy of the water.

The water is kept at a warm temperature, which leads to increased flexibility, mobility and contractility of the muscles as well as improved circulation, she said.

The Underwater Treadmill allows an earlier return to exercise after surgery, she said. It also strengthens muscles surrounding painful joints in arthritic patients and is great for weight loss and conditioning in performance dogs.

An additional benefit of the Underwater Treadmill versus traditional hydrotherapy is that the resistance and depth of the water can be controlled, Woolley said. This allows for a more progressive therapy plan, which is tailored to suit each individual dogs condition.

Our treadmill is fitted with hydrotherapy jets, which provide resistance of up to seven times that of walking on land, to deliver a more challenging workout, she said.

The speed of the jets and temperature of the water can also be adjusted to control how fast the dog moves and to improve the outcome of the rehabilitation session, Woolley said.

The Treadmill is often better than swimming as the dog doesn’t tire out as quickly and the introduction to water is more controlled and less stressful for the dog, she said. The temperature of the Underwater Treadmill water is usually higher than a swimming pool, which helps the dog to relax.

Woolley described the case of one of her recent canine patients, Mason. This three-year-old Great Dane suffers from Contracted Gluteal Muscles and an abnormal gait.

The Underwater Treadmill allows for slow, controlled exercise, she said. Because a dogs movement is exaggerated in the Underwater Treadmill, it is perfect for Mason to help re-educate his movement and strengthen other deteriorated muscles that have not been used because of his abnormal gait.

Aquatic Bioelectric Therapy

Aquatic Bioelectric Therapy is an exciting new avenue for hydrotherapy, which provides pain relief for a variety of canine conditions, Woolley said.

This is a new form of treatment combining the benefits of a whirlpool with drug-free pain management, she said.

Pressure is created by the adjustable jets of this device, which provides a comfortable massage for the animal while increasing blood flow and promoting endorphin release and general relaxation.

Woolley said Aquatic Bioelectric Therapy can be used to treat generalised conditions (such as pain throughout the body), acute injuries (sprains and strains), joints post operatively (knees, hips, elbows and shoulders) and arthritic conditions.

Benefits any breed

Dogs of all breeds and ages will benefit from hydrotherapy, with few exceptions, Woolley insisted.

Some deep-chested breeds can have difficulty swimming, like the Boxer or the Doberman, she said. The Underwater Treadmill is a better option for these breeds.

Woolley recommended swimming be introduced to puppies at a young age to help them gain water confidence, which generally improves with gradual acclimatisation and perseverance.

Although, a dog is never too old to try hydrotherapy as age does not affect rehabilitation outcomes, she added.

All dogs will have increased mobility after rehabilitation and senior dogs with arthritis will also benefit, she said.

A controlled environment

Woolley stressed the importance of swimming in a safe, supervised environment rather than simply in a lake, at the beach or in the home swimming pool.

Swimming in a controlled environment is the safest option when treating a dog, she said. The water can be monitored, the temperature is kept constant and the water is filtered and treated to make hydrotherapy as safe as possible.

Taking your dog to swim in an uncontrolled environment can be dangerous due to the temperature and condition of the water, Woolley added. At Aquapaws, the water is kept at a comfortable 32 degrees for comfort, relaxation and to aid pain relief.

Cold water, such as a lake or the sea, causes constriction of the blood vessels near the skin and to the superficial muscles (those just beneath the skin), which restricts the flow of blood, making the muscles less efficient, she said.

Woolley warned that lakes can also be dangerous, particularly in warmer months when the water often contains algae that can be toxic to dogs.

Factors to keep in mind

Woolley urged pet owners to consider certain factors before beginning a hydrotherapy program for their dog. All dogs need veterinary referral in order to attend the centre, except performance dogs that are in work or competing, she said.

Dogs should undergo a complete health check by their veterinarian before commencing any form of hydrotherapy, she said. All dogs need a veterinary referral before beginning physical rehabilitation, especially following an injury or surgery.

Depending on your dogs condition, hydrotherapy may not be a suitable option, Woolley warned, adding that hydrotherapy can be harmful if there is a pre-existing condition present, such as a heart condition or breathing difficulties.

Case Study #1


Breed & age: Great Dane, three years old

Condition: Contracted Gluteal Muscles, limited movement in both stifles, abnormal gait. Mason has had this condition for at least two years.

Treatment: Mason uses the Underwater Treadmill. He has regular massage sessions in conjunction with the Treadmill to relax his muscles and help break up knots that have formed. He has also received Veterinary Acupuncture. Since starting the program, his leg angles have improved and he has more flexion in his stifles. He has also lost four kilograms, which helps with managing his overall condition.

Case Study #2


Breed & age: Golden Retriever, four years old

Condition: Cruciate Disease

Treatment: Alley needs to rebuild the muscles following her surgery. Muscle wastage often occurs with lameness and can begin within three days of any immobilisation. To prevent further weakness or injury it is important to rebuild muscle through safe exercise. At present Alley is using the Underwater Treadmill and will progress to other modalities, which will aid in her recovery.

Case Study #3


Breed & age: Labrador, two years old

Condition: Need to increase fitness, coordination and stamina for agility.

Treatment: Tahlia started agility and jumping earlier last year and is progressing well. She has her novice jumping title and achieved her first pass in novice agility after working on her fitness at the centre. We used the Underwater Treadmill to increase her stamina and fitness level and other modalities for coordination. The conditioning has worked very well and she enjoys the combination of water activities and a run.

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