What is Hydrotherapy?
Hydrotherapy is essentially water therapy, the therapeutic use of water to improve health. For dogs, it usually consists of walking in the water or swimming. This could be anything from walking on the beach to swimming in a pool. There are two types used for canine rehab:
When you hear the word “hydrotherapy,” chances are you think about an underwater treadmill. It is a treadmill, either motorized or manual, that is encased in a glass or plastic chamber. The dog enters the chamber, the door is closed, and the chamber is filled with water until it’s just above the dog’s legs. The treadmill begins to slowly move and your dog will begin to walk. The water serves to provide resistance while taking away the stress of gravity to provide a low-impact workout.
Therapeutic swimming, or swim therapy, is exercise using controlled swimming to build muscle and to gain strength. It is a no-impact exercise that eliminates the impact of gravity on the bones and joints. It can be done in a small, special pool designed for its use or even a regular swimming pool if the temperature is comfortable for your dog. Swimming provides a good cardiovascular workout, can help to burn calories, and works the core muscles.
Hydrotherapy isn’t required to be done in a clinical setting. You can take your dog swimming in a pool or body of water, however, you should closely supervise your dog and consider a life jacket designed for dogs. Swimming is hard work and dogs can get very tired. It’s a good idea to talk with a vet before taking your dog swimming to ensure it can be done safely. Dogs with certain medical conditions are not good candidates.
What are the Benefits of Hydrotherapy?
Canine hydrotherapy can be used to treat a wide range of health conditions and injuries due to its low-impact nature. It helps to improve endurance, cardiovascular fitness, range of motion, and general well-being. It helps to relieve pain, rehabilitate joints, increase range of motion, and promote blood circulation. Hydrotherapy is used on many conditions including neurological problems, injuries and post-surgical healing and recovery, weight loss, and others.
Hydrotherapy is effective for many medical conditions to supplement other physical rehab therapies.
What are the Issues with Hydrotherapy?
Hydrotherapy can be an effective therapeutic treatment, however, it doesn’t work for all dogs.
Not All Dogs Are Candidates
Dogs with certain medical issues may not be ideal candidates for this kind of therapy including dogs with breathing difficulties, heart disease, or open wounds or sores. If your dog panics in water, they could cause further injury thrashing in the water. Also, at the beginning of treatment, hydrotherapy and in particular, swimming, could be too strenuous an activity for much time.
It Doesn’t Promote Progressive Overloading
To add strength and to generate muscle growth, muscles and tendons have to be gradually loaded with progressive resistance. This is the same in dogs as it is in humans. Think of it like this—when you want to gain strength, do you run on a treadmill or do you lift weights? Sure, we will gain some muscle strength from running on a treadmill, but we gain more muscle and overall fitness by lifting weights or using our body weight for resistance, and the same goes for your dog. They may gain some strength initially, but will likely plateau.
Promotes the Progression of an Abnormal Gait
If your dog has an abnormal gait, the use of an underwater treadmill will continue the progression. It makes sense to first perform an assessment to determine the cause of the abnormal gait and address those issues first before considering the use of an underwater treadmill.
Doesn’t Target Specific Muscles
Though hydrotherapy is effective for strengthening, it can’t target specific individual muscles to reduce inflammation or pain or for strengthening.
Lucky for you, your rehab vet has a lot of tools in their arsenal to help dogs return to full function after an injury, improve fitness, and manage long-term medical conditions. There are many different treatments available with canine physical rehab.
So, back to the original question: does my dog need hydrotherapy? While many owners have an expectation that a rehabilitation practice will offer hydrotherapy, and by that, they generally mean an underwater treadmill, it may not be necessary for your dog. The answer is that while it may sometimes be beneficial, it is generally not required and certainly is not the only therapeutic means to provide relief and to promote healing for your dog.