How does water therapy for dogs work?

Water therapy for dogs

Water therapy for dogs is one of the oldest — and the newest — ways to treat joint and muscle problems.

Water has been used by people for centuries to build muscle strength without putting full body weight on a joint. The benefits of using sea water to treat and prevent injuries in horses have been known for centuries. Notice was taken by the greyhound racing industry, which lead to the therapy being used for companion dogs.

A case study: Luka

When Luka, an American Eskimo dog belonging to Susan Osborne and Lisa Baker, came back from a walk favoring his left front leg, it launched a $5,000 diagnostic journey. The job of finding the source of his pain involved his vet; a canine nerve specialist, who ordered magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and a veterinary orthopedist, who recommended a CT scan. In the end, a second X-ray caught just the right angle to detect a hairline crack in his leg bone.

A referral from Penny Scott-Fox of Scott-Fox Training, where Luka had taken classes, led Luka’s owners to Yvonne Garst, director of the Wellness Center at the Tarzana branch of K9s Only. Yvonne, a certified personal trainer and licensed massage therapist, not only understands the importance of proper rehabilitation, she’s worked with her own Bernese mountain dogs following hip and elbow surgery.

When Morgan, her first Bernese mountain dog had surgeries that required him to be inactive for four months, she began researching rehabilitation techniques for dogs. The closest expert in water therapy for dogs she found was a six-hour drive from her home.  She ultimately became certified herself in canine massage and warm water therapy.

These days, Luka is an old hand at water therapy. He and Yvonne start out with some balancing on big red exercise balls to limber up. Then he trots down the slate deck to the shallow end of the long, narrow lap pool filled with warm water and follows Yvonne in.

She encourages him forward.  His thick, snowy coat floats out from his body as he paddles the length of the pool. Yvonne keeps her hands lightly on him, sometimes pulling back to make him work a little harder, sometimes guiding him so he doesn’t take short cuts when he turns around to paddle back. Treats are given out every round or so. Yvonne may give him a little massage if he seems stiff.

With the warm water supporting his weight, Luka can exercise more with less pain.  The session builds his cardiovascular stamina as well as his muscles.

The benefits of water therapy for dogs

Water therapy is good for dogs:

  • With arthritis or aging joints that are painful to put weight on.
  • Facing surgery, who need to maintain or improve their physical fitness with aggravating a condition.
  • Recovering from surgery who need to move and build their strength but aren’t ready to put full weight on a leg or joint.
  • Have spinal injuries and need to regenerate nerve pathways after surgery.

Any breed of dog can benefit from water therapy. Dogs of certain breeds will enjoy swimming more than others. Some dogs may have difficulty breathing while exercising in water and need closer supervision.

A typical water therapy (also called hydrotherapy) pool is smaller than a lap pool that humans might use.  While horses are given therapy in cool water (because their large bodies generate heat as they exercise), dogs have water therapy in a heated pool. The pool may have shallow steps leading into the water, a ramp or event a hoist to help a dog get in and out.  Some water therapy pools have harnesses to keep the dog in one place while jets provide resistance he has to paddle against. Some hydrotherapy centers have underwater treadmills so the dog is walking rather than swimming.