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What Are The Benefits Of Swimming And Water Therapy Or Hydrotherapy For Dogs?

When it's time to exercise our dogs, most people turn to walking and maybe jogging or running. But what about swimming? Swimming is actually a great activity for dogs that not only provides physical exercise but also tangible health benefits. So, what are the benefits of swimming and water therapy or hydrotherapy for dogs? Find out here.

Why And How Swimming Benefits Dogs

Swimming is one of the most complete forms of exercise for dogs that benefits their physical and mental health. It's an aerobic workout, which is a type of cardiovascular conditioning (commonly referred to as "cardio"). Aerobic workouts range from low to high intensity but all are performed for a sustained period of time and depend mainly on the aerobic (which means "relating to oxygen") energy-generating process. So breathing and heart rate increases, which in turn helps with circulatory system, lung and heart health. Specific physical health benefits of aerobic workouts include:

  • Providing cardiovascular conditioning
  • Strengthening and toning muscles all over the body thanks to the resistance of the water
  • Keeping the heart, lungs and circulatory system healthy
  • Reducing inflammation and swelling in body tissues
  • Boosting metabolism
  • Improving circulation (which can maintain skin and coat health)
  • Reducing the risk of injury

Because it's low-impact, non-weight bearing and non-concussive, swimming provides all of these benefits and more for dogs while reducing stress and damage to their joints and soft tissues (like muscles, tendons and ligaments). This makes it especially beneficial for older dogs, dogs with joint issues, overweight dogs, dogs with paralysis or amputations and those recovering from surgery or injury.

Swimming also requires your dog to move in new and different ways than they do on land, which can improve their range of motion and strengthen joints. And it can help reduce pain and improve circulation, especially when done in warm water (which would also promote blood flow, warm up muscles more quickly, promote relaxation, reduce muscle spasms and lower injury risk).

Our dog's mental health can also benefit from swimming. This is because it provides enrichment, variety and playtime while reducing boredom and stress. It can even be beneficial to your dog's sleep. Bonus: it provides an opportunity for you and your dog to spend time together, which can improve your bond and boost your moods. 

Pro Tip: It's recommended that healthy dogs get a mix of both swimming and land exercise to maintain bone strength and bone density.

What Is Canine Hydrotherapy?

Because swimming can be so beneficial, hydrotherapy (also known as water therapy or aquatic therapy) was created. It is a form of occupational or physical therapy where water is used to aid or improve physical and mental health while minimizing discomfort. Though hydrotherapy for humans has been around for centuries, it became popular for dogs more recently. Animal hydrotherapy arose first in the horse-racing industry, then the Greyhound racing industry and finally the general dog population.

Hydrotherapy involves buoyancy, hydrostatic pressure, resistance and viscosity. Buoyancy is the upward force by a fluid that opposes the weight of an immersed object - or the ability of water to keep something afloat. Hydrostatic pressure is the force created by resting water pressing against something, which actually creates buoyancy. The water's buoyancy supports body weight and removes the pressure of gravity, so there is less weight to carry during exercise. This allows for rehab and recovery that is easier on your dog's body, a more comfortable environment to modify soft tissues, improve ambulatory (walking) mechanisms and correct compensatory movements (e.g. a limp).

Water also adds resistance and viscosity. Resistance occurs between molecules of liquid, while viscosity is the liquid's resistance to flow. So as you move through the water, the water molecules not only cling to your body but also try to cling to each other. Water is much more dense and viscous than air, thus providing a greater amount of resistance. The viscosity of water therapy allows for a variety of ways to create resistance without overloading the body. So, for example, you can increase the body's surface area with a flotation device, which will require more force to move the water. These help hydrotherapy be effective in building strength since it makes your dog's muscles work harder. This also means that water exercise can typically be done in shorter amounts of time.

The Benefits of Canine Hydrotherapy

Hydrotherapy has many uses and can be beneficial to a wide variety of conditions and issues in dogs. Some specific benefits include:

  • Rebuilding and strengthening muscles and soft tissues
  • Improving mobility and range of motion, stamina, balance, coordination and gait
  • Managing and relieving pain, swelling and stiffness
  • Reducing inflammation
  • Aiding in weight loss
  • Helping with post-surgery recovery
  • Speeding up healing from injury
  • Reducing muscle spasms and relaxing muscles
  • Relieving stress on joints
  • Maintaining muscle mass
  • Increasing blood circulation
  • Aiding digestion
  • Providing aerobic fitness and cardiovascular conditioning (which helps heart, lung and circulatory system health)

What Dogs Benefit Most From Canine Hydrotherapy?

Canine hydrotherapy is especially beneficial for dogs who have certain conditions.   These include:

  • Dogs with joint issues (like arthritis, hip dysplasia, elbow dysplasia and degenerative joint disease)
  • Overweight dogs
  • Older or senior dogs, especially those with mobility issues
  • Dogs recovering from surgery or injury (like those with torn ACLs)
  • Dogs with paralysis or amputations
  • Dogs with muscular conditions, such as musculoskeletal pain
  • Dogs with neurological conditions
  • Dogs with orthotic pain and problems
  • Dogs with muscle loss or atrophy, such as from Cushing's disease or Diabetes

Hydrotherapy can also be a useful tool for highly active and sporting dogs, as it's an excellent form of physical conditioning and can help prevent injuries. For instance, one minute of swimming is equivalent to approximately four minutes of running for dogs, according to vets. This is called "recreational hydrotherapy" and specifically helps improve stamina and endurance while strengthening muscles.  That being said, recreational hydrotherapy should be part of a training program, not the entirety of it.

Some Dogs May Not Benefit From Hydrotherapy

Although hydrotherapy is a great option for many dogs, it's not for every one. Some dogs that may (sometimes, but not always) have trouble with it include:

  • Brachycephalic breeds (like English Bulldogs, French Bulldogs and Pugs) due to breathing issues.
  • Dogs with unstable spines, as swimming can stress the cartilage between the vertebrae.
  • Dogs with certain joint and ligament injuries where the kicking motion of swimming, as well as how they enter and exit the pool, can cause more damage.
  • Dogs with cardiovascular conditions and issues, as excessive aerobic exercise can cause harm.
  • Dogs who are prone to or suffer form ear infections, as the water can worsen the issue.
  • Dogs with active urinary tract infections or skin infections.
  • Dogs within 10-14 days post-surgery, who's incisions aren't closed or still have sutures, as swimming may reopen or contaminate the wound.

Your vet will help you determine whether hydrotherapy is right for your dog and their rehabilitation needs. If they believe it would be beneficial, they may also suggest a type of hydrotherapy, as well as prescribe pain medications and joint supplements.

The Different Types Of Canine Hydrotherapy

For humans, hydrotherapy can range from swimming and water aerobics to therapeutic baths and saunas. For dogs, there's are three main types that target different issues:

Underwater Treadmill

Underwater treadmills allow dogs to do strength and resistance training while minimizing the stress of gravity. For example, hip-level water is equivalent to relieving around half of a dog's body weight. Underwater treadmills also provide a customizable experience with the opportunity to slowly and gently increase weight bearing exercise. This is because the level of water (and thus buoyancy) and the speed of the treadmill can be modified. Dogs usually start in a water level that covers their legs and gradually reduces. This method is commonly used for dogs with joint issues.

Swimming In Dog Pools

Another form of hydrotherapy is swimming in dog pools using personalized and guided exercises. This allows dogs to improve mobility and strength in a non-weight bearing setting and targets several parts of your dog's body like the elbows, chest, shoulders and legs. It is commonly used for dogs with arthritis and osteoarthritis, other degenerative joint conditions, neurological conditions, pain during weight-bearing activities and forearm issues. For dogs who can't swim or don't like water, this form of hydrotherapy may require extra buoyancy aids or devices.  

Dog Whirpools

A dog whirlpool is a jacuzzi style treatment that uses jet streams to help relax muscles and relieve pain, much like a massage would. The water level of the whirlpool will depend on what is being targeted. This type of hydrotherapy is used more for pain management and muscle relaxation, rather than mobility and strength building. For instance, this can be great for dogs recovering from major surgeries. 

Hydrotherapy For Dogs Who Can't Swim Or Dislike Water

Hydrotherapy is done by trained professionals who monitor and supervise their patients at all times and take safety precautions when necessary. This means that dogs who can't swim will be outfitted with life vests, harnesses and other swimming aids. Those that may need extra help include dogs with long bodies, short legs and low body fat. Hydrotherapy facilities are also usually experienced when it comes to dogs who dislike water. So they will have established methods for teaching dogs to swim or making them more comfortable in the water. For dogs who are overly anxious, activity will typically be stopped as their stress can increase their blood pressure and heart rate.

If your dog isn't fond of water, it might be a good idea to help them feel more comfortable before their first hydrotherapy session. You can use the bath or kiddie/doggie pool and positive reinforcement to gradually help your dog associate the water with something good. Start with a few inches and slowly increase the depth until your dog is comfortable being immersed. If you have access to a pool, you can start in the shallow end and move deeper as they become more comfortable. It's always best to let them go at their own pace and acclimate on their own schedule. Also, try to make it as pleasant and fun as possible.

Pro Tip: If your dog is unsure what to do once immersed in water, you can provide support and guidance by placing your arms under their chest and belly (but don't restrain them) and guide them through the water.

Make sure to always keep safety at the forefront. Don't leave your dog unsupervised in the water, make sure there are easy ways to exit (and teach your dog where and how to do so). Life vests are always useful, even for dogs who can swim. Remember that dogs get tired too, so make sure your dog isn't swimming for longer than they are capable. And always provide a bowl with fresh drinking water so your dog doesn't resort to drinking pool water (or water from the ocean, lake, etc.). 

Risks Of Hydrotherapy For Dogs

Hydrotherapy and swimming provide a variety of health benefits to dogs, but, as always, there are some risks. These include:

  • Recurring ear infections
  • Agitation of certain skin conditions
  • Fatigue
  • Ingestion of too much water, which can lead to water intoxication or pneumonia

Pro Tip: Many hydrotherapy facilities use chlorine in their water. But this shouldn't be much of a cause for concern, as chlorine toxicity typically requires excessive ingestion. Furthermore, the chlorine levels in these pools are closely monitored and diluted to be safe for dogs and humans. In addition, many use UV filtration systems, which lower the need for higher levels of chlorine. 

Can Canine Hydrotherapy Be Done At Home?

In general, canine hydrotherapy should be performed in a clinical facility. This is because hydrotherapists are licensed professionals who are trained in their field. So they will be best at providing the proper care and doing exercises without worsening your dog's condition or injury.

Recreational hydrotherapy, on the other hand, can be done at home. It can be a great way to provide your dog with all the benefits of swimming. You can use aquatic toys, like amphibious balls, to make it even more fun.

Pro Tip: If you have a toy breed or small dog, try using a kiddie or doggie pool for a more manageable source of water.

Just make sure your dog can swim and enjoys being in the water. Consider using a life vest in general, but especially for dogs who like water but can't swim. Always supervise your dog in the water, even if they are a skilled swimmer. And if your dog has medical conditions, talk to your vet about whether swimming is a good activity for them.

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