The hydrotherapy rehabilitation technique draws on the properties of water to help dogs back on their feet again.

You know how soothing water can be. A warm bath can do wonders to relax stiff muscles and calm stressed nerves. People have been enjoying the benefits of warm water therapy for millennia. Water can also help with healing. Hydrotherapy, also called aquatic therapy, has become an important part of physical rehabilitation following injury or surgery. It was initially used for horses; the first equine hydro-treadmill was developed in the early 1970s. In the mid-1980s, the hydro-treadmill also became available for human patients. And in 1998, TOPS Veterinary Rehab near Chicago introduced the use of hydro-treadmills for dogs. Since then, hydrotherapy, whether in a pool or on an underwater treadmill, has proved to be a valuable tool for canine rehabilitation.

Aquatic therapy has many advantages

Hydrotherapy relies on the properties of water to help with the rehabilitation process.

• The water provides buoyancy that aids in the rehabilitation of weak muscles and painful joints. This buoyancy allows the patient to stand and exercise while minimizing the amount of weight his sore joints have to bear. If a dog is immersed in water to mid-chest, his joints are only bearing 38% of the weight they would on dry land. With less of a load on painful joints, the dog is able to exercise more comfortably. A paralyzed dog, meanwhile, is more willing to walk in water than on land because the water holds him up and prevents him from falling. This greatly reduces his anxiety about exercising. Weak patients are able to move more comfortably in water than on land.

• Aquatic therapy is also useful for swollen joints or limbs, and other tissues that are retaining fluid. This is because the water pressure reduces swelling and provides stimulation to the nerve receptors in the skin. This stimulation decreases the animal’s pain perception and allows him to exercise with considerably less discomfort.

• The resistance of the water allows the dog to get a more intense workout in a shorter period of time.

• Exercising in water has many additional benefits. It improves strength and muscular endurance, cardiovascular fitness, range of motion, and well-being. Most dogs find water exercise, particularly swimming, to be fun. Dogs recovering from anterior cruciate surgery, fractures, neurological conditions, and tendon or ligament injuries benefit greatly from aquatic therapy as part of their rehabilitation. Overweight, arthritic and senior dogs, or those with hip dysplasia or spondylosis (a disease of the spine) are also candidates for hydrotherapy. Increasingly, swimming or underwater treadmill walking is used with sporting dogs for conditioning and to maintain fitness in the off season.

Today’s treadmills are high tech

Unlike the original models, hydro-treadmills now are quite high tech. They have been redesigned for easy cleaning and so that the temperature and level of the water can be adjusted. The water temperature in most hydro-treadmills is maintained between 80°F and 90°F since warmer water is beneficial to neurological patients. However, cooler temperatures may be desired for conditioning.

Many hydro-treadmills have jets for resistance swimming and also feature an incline function – great for conditioning sporting dogs. Often, if a dog is nervous about water, he will be fine in the hydro-treadmill because there is no swimming involved. Most underwater treadmills have glass sides so the patient can see “mom” or “dad” for reassurance and encouragement.

Many hydro-treadmills have jets for resistance swimming and also feature an incline function – great for conditioning sporting dogs.

Many of the newer models can also run without water so they double as dry treadmills. Land or dry treadmills may be used for limb strengthening and to improve endurance in canine athletes. They will often be used later in rehabilitation, when a dog is ready to return to sport, to improve cardiovascular fitness.

Assistive devices such as life jackets, floatation cuffs and therapy bands may be used in the pool or hydro-treadmill to assist in walking or swimming, or to improve joint range of motion during recovery. As the patient recovers use of the affected limb, weights are sometimes added for extra resistance and to facilitate muscle strengthening.

Precautions and contraindications

Some precautions need to be taken before instituting a hydrotherapy program for a dog. Animals with open wounds or sores, and those that have breathing difficulties or heart disease are not candidates for aquatic therapy. In addition, if a dog panics in water, swimming may not be right for him as he may injure himself thrashing about. Lifejackets, swim buddies and competent aquatic therapists may be able to assist such a dog get used to a pool, but a hydro-treadmill might be a better option. The therapist must determine the dog’s fitness level as swimming in particular can be very strenuous. After surgery, it is not uncommon for a dog to be able to swim or walk in an underwater treadmill for only a short time, due to fatigue.

A variety of injuries and health conditions can negatively impact a dog’s mobility, causing pain, stiffness, paralysis, balance issues and more. Hydrotherapy is an effective way to help an affected dog regain his ability to walk normally – and that in turn improves his happiness and quality of life.


Veterinarian Dr. Janice Huntingford is a graduate of the Ontario Veterinary College, University of Guelph, and certified in animal chiropractic and acupuncture. She received her certification in Veterinary Rehabilitation through the Canine Rehabilitation Institute, and opened Ontario’s first saltwater canine therapy pool and rehabilitation center. She is a Certified TCVM Practitioner, a Certified Veterinary Pain Practitioner, and a board certified specialist, earning a Diploma from the American College of Veterinary Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation. She practices in Essex, Ontario (essexanimalhospital.ca).