Hydrotherapy is an increasingly popular treatment for pets. Animal Friends explores this pet health therapy in this handy guide.

20th September 2013

Hydrotherapy is used to help dogs heal after suffering from an injury or undergoing surgery. Used in conjunction with veterinary treatment and, sometimes, other forms of physiotherapy, the therapy helps with rehabilitation and not only furthers the chance of a full return to fitness, but improves the quality and speed of healing. It is usually carried out via aquatic treadmill therapy and swimming.

Once a dog has been immobilised for 3 days muscle wastage will start to occur and it is vital to prevent any more weakness. This is done by rebuilding muscles through safe exercise and swimming is perfect for this purpose; it helps to improve muscle tone and strength, as well as overall fitness and stamina in terms of cardiovascular activity. This is because water resistance makes the muscle work a little harder, by encouraging free limb movement in water muscle bulk increases and wastage lessens.

Warm water

Canine hydro-therapists will usually use warm water for their rehabilitation programmes as cold water constricts the blood vessels and reduces the blood flow making the muscles’ work less efficient. Warm water increases the circulation of blood to muscles which greatens the feed of nutrients and oxygen, flushing out muscle wastage and promoting a reduction in pain and stiffness due to the relaxing of muscles. A good circulation of blood will also reduce any swelling or pain around a limb or joint which allows for greater uninhibited movement, again, increasing muscle build-up.

Other health benefits

There are many other health benefits of hydrotherapy apart from muscle regeneration. A dog’s respiratory system will vastly improve as the chest and muscles used to breathe in need to work harder to combat the pressure put upon them by the water. As the muscles build and strengthen so too does the respiratory system as a whole. Similarly, the heart has to work harder to distribute nutrients to all of the muscles that are being worked and so becomes stronger.


If this all sounds like hard work for your dog, don’t worry. Whilst the water resistance does work the whole body more, it also provides buoyancy meaning that the load on weight-bearing joints is lessened. The exercises carried out in the pool will put less stress on your dog’s bones and limbs than if the same exercises were carried out on land, where each footfall creates a shockwave which moves up the limb and is absorbed by the bones, joints and tendons. Whilst for a fully fit dog this is beneficial (in that it maintains the strength of bones), for a dog that has weakened limbs, depleted muscle strength or a general lack of movement, these jolts of pressure can actually worsen the condition. For example, a dog that suffers from severe arthritis would not be able to move as freely on land as it would in water without causing more pain or damage to its limbs.

Hydrostatic pressure

Water also applies hydrostatic pressure on the body as a whole meaning that it will reduce swelling by pushing body fluid away from the affected points, joints or limbs. Both hydrostatic pressure and buoyancy work to support the dog’s body during exercise which can help to reload a weak limb after surgery and also realign a dog’s gait pattern; particularly helpful for neurological conditions. The effortless buoyancy of the water combined with the impossibility of sudden shocks, twist, falls or abrasive movement, means that hydrotherapy is a safe, valid and positive form of canine exercise.

Consultation with vet

Most dogs will actually enjoy hydrotherapy and take to it quite happily. It is imperative that you consult with your vet before taking your dog to any hydrotherapy session. If your vet feels that your dog will benefit from the therapy then they’ll refer you to a member of the Canine Hydrotherapy Association (CHA). Each member of the CHA will have the relevant qualifications in ‘Hydrotherapy for Small Animals’ with additional modules that all fall within the strict framework for the governing body’s (CHA) credit and qualifications programme.

Please note that this document is not a certified medical text and should only be read as advice. If you would like to know more about the possibility of hydrotherapy for your dog, then please contact your vet as soon as possible.

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