What is Hydrotherapy for Dogs?

Many dogs will jump at the chance — literally — to swim in a pool. But swimming can be much more than just a fun activity — it can help to rehabilitate dogs that are injured or out of shape. This form of rehabilitation is known as hydrotherapy.

Dog swimming in pool
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What is hydrotherapy?

Hydrotherapy is a type of canine physical therapy that is performed in water. Because it utilizes the effect of being weightless in water, hydrotherapy is an effective form of exercise that is also easy on a dog's joints. The warmth of the water can be soothing as well. There are many reasons why a dog might undergo hydrotherapy, from mobility issues to recovering from surgery. This form of exercise can also help promote overall conditioning and fitness, and it can increase a dog's flexibility, range of motion, muscle strength, and endurance.

How does hydrotherapy work?

Hydrotherapy takes place in either a swimming pool or in a chamber that has an underwater treadmill.

When hydrotherapy takes place in a swimming pool, dogs will often be equipped with a life vest, and in some cases, they may also be supported by overhead wires that connect to the vest. Physical therapist Jennifer Hill says that once the dog she's working with is in the water, she'll then entice them with a tennis ball, toy, or treat. She uses the object to lead the dog to turn right, turn left, and swim in a figure-8 pattern. This is intended to promote motion in the dog's spine.

young golden retriever puppy swimming in a pool
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In addition to directional swimming, there are exercises that can be done specifically to stimulate a dog's hind legs. The physical therapist may position their hand behind the dog's back legs, prompting the dog to kick it. This kicking can also be good for the dog's hips.

Dogs can get a good core workout in the pool as well. Small dogs in particular may be put on a boogie board or a small surfboard. The act of keeping their balance while on the board strengthens their core muscles.

When hydrotherapy takes place in a chamber with an underwater treadmill, the dog will enter the chamber when it's empty, and then the enclosure will slowly be filled with warm water. The level of the water will depend on that specific dog's height. The speed of the treadmill as well as the duration of the workout are tailored to each dog's size and condition as well.

Veterinarian Carol Helfer, DVM, notes that when she begins working with a dog, she'll usually start them with one to three exercise sets that last two to three minutes each. They start at a slow speed as well — usually 0.3 miles per hour. Her aim is to get her patients to increase both the duration of their workouts as well as the speed at which they're walking, with a goal of walking continuously for twenty minutes.

Chocolate Labrador Swimming
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How to know if your dog will benefit from hydrotherapy

Hydrotherapy can be beneficial in a wide variety of cases. Dogs experiencing mobility issues related to arthritis, hip dysplasia, or joint pain are particularly good candidates for hydrotherapy. This form of exercise can also be used to strengthen muscles before a surgical procedure, or aid in the recovery process afterwards.

Your dog may also benefit from hydrotherapy if they are geriatric or overweight. In elderly dogs, swimming or walking on the underwater treadmill can increase stamina. For overweight patients, hydrotherapy is an excellent form of low-impact aerobic exercise.

On the contrary, dogs that have heart disease, difficulty breathing, open or infected wounds, or a serious fear of water are probably not good candidates for hydrotherapy. Additionally, cost is a factor to consider — while hydrotherapy may be covered by pet insurance, that is not always the case.

Whether your dog is experiencing mobility issues or might just enjoy a new type of aerobic workout, consult with your vet about whether hydrotherapy is a good option for you.