Doggy Paddle: The Benefits of Hydrotherapy for Dogs
Story by Liesel Schmidt
While it may sound more impressive by its technical name, the term hydrotherapy simply refers to treatments performed in warm water or pools. Before you start imagining a gaggle of mature women in bathing suits following the lead of a water aerobics instructor while they bob around, there’s actually more to it than that. Hydrotherapy is an overarching term that includes steam baths, foot baths, contrast therapy, hot and cold showers, aquatic physical therapy, warm water baths, immersion therapy and wet saunas and can be as passive as sitting in a jacuzzi or as active as swimming or using an underwater treadmill. Studies show it to be beneficial to humans, but it’s also extremely useful in treating dogs for a variety of issues and can give your furry friend a happier, healthier quality of life.
Much like traditional hydrotherapy for people, canine hydrotherapy is a non-weight bearing exercise performed either in a pool or with the use of an underwater treadmill—though some canine treatment centers offer the use of whirlpools, as well. Regardless, what makes this type of exercise beneficial is the reduction of pressure on the joints and improved range of motion that water creates.
The benefits of canine hydrotherapy, in fact, are many, as studies show it not only removes pressure from the joints and improves range of motion, but also reduces inflammation in the joints, improves circulation, increases muscle mass, builds stamina and strength and improves cardiovascular fitness. Consequently, hydrotherapy is useful in post-operative recovery from orthopedic procedures and can be used to treat dogs with neurological conditions, osteoarthritis, pain due to hip dysplasia and metabolic conditions such as Cushing’s or diabetes that often cause muscle atrophy. It is also effective for paralyzed dogs as well as helping with weight loss in overweight pets. Hydrotherapy can even be used as a training tool to help working dogs reach optimal fitness levels. On the psychological side, dogs that undergo hydrotherapy treatment sessions see the benefits of mental stimulation.
“Hydrotherapy can help in rebuilding lost muscle mass and muscle weight due to age, injury or lack of exercise. It’s also a great way for healthy dogs to maintain strong muscles and joints. When swimming, a dog is completely non-weight bearing, which means they can exercise sooner after injury or even when suffering from issues like arthritis." - Lisa Castaneda, owner of Aquatic Paws in Falls Church and Chantilly.
As beneficial as swimming can be for a dog, some dogs need the assurance of a solid surface under their feet to feel relaxed and avoid panic. This is where an underwater treadmill becomes a better option than swimming. Additionally, these enclosed treadmills allow for the water level to be adjusted to suit the particular needs of the dog and increases the dog’s awareness of their own movements through contact with the treadmill belt rather than being suspended in water as they are when swimming. Simply put, they can feel the "ground," which makes them feel more secure. An underwater treadmill also helps in gait re-education, increases muscle mass due to a degree of weight going through the limb and, at the same time, encourages equal weight bearing on all limbs. The treadmill also allows for more controlled movement and alteration of speed, which are important to a dog’s recovery after surgery.
“In the case of using the underwater treadmill rather than swimming, the weight bearing load is decreased by up to 50 percent,” Castaneda explains. “That decrease in impact encourages better range of motion, willingness to put some weight on the foot and building muscle mass and muscle strength as the water acts like resistance bands and increases circulation.
“All dogs, regardless of whether they are swimming or using the treadmill, start with a life jacket,” Castaneda continues. “The goal with the treadmill is to walk for 20 minutes. Sometimes the dog is not able to walk 20 minutes straight, so we do the best we can and build up from there.” Castaneda recommends sessions at least once per week, though many people come twice a week. Results are typically seen by the third visit.