How Hydrotherapy for Dogs Works and Why It’s Worth It

"Hydrotherapy" means “water healing" in Greek, and dogs can benefit in the same way humans do.

Jennifer Cohen  |  Sep 25th 2014


After Michelle Smith’s dog, Cookie, had knee surgery for a torn ACL, she was told he would need physical therapy. Her vet advised her to look into hydrotherapy. But he doesn’t like to swim, thought Michelle. She anticipated hydrotherapy would be a total washout, but she could not have been more wrong. After only a few sessions, Cookie made a rapid recovery without any complications.

In Greek, the word “hydrotherapy” means “water healing.” Dogs can benefit from water therapy in the same way humans do.

How can hydrotherapy help?

Hydrotherapy uses the properties of water — buoyancy, viscosity, resistance, and hydrostatic pressure — to enable a dog (or human) to move her joints. Water makes the body buoyant, so when submerged, the weight of the body is supported. This means the dog is not fighting gravity. The buoyancy of water reduces stress on the joints and this creates a much safer environment for recovery after surgery.

Hydrotherapy is also beneficial for dogs who are recovering from an injury, dogs who suffer from degenerative joint disease, and those who have been paralyzed.

Water therapy can also help dogs suffering from fractures, hip dysplasia, the amputation of a limb, and neurological disorders. Hydrotherapy may be especially beneficial for dogs who suffer from arthritis due to old age; the warm water helps reduce joint swelling, another benefit.

What types of hydrotherapy can dogs do?

Some of the available forms of hydrotherapy for dogs include whirlpools, underwater treadmills, and dog pools. All three options offer a controlled environment.

Underwater treadmills are often used for dogs with joint problems. Picture a treadmill encased in a glass or plastic enclosed chamber. The dog enters the chamber, the door is shut and the water fills up just above the dogs’ legs. The dog begins to walk on the treadmill and the water creates the resistance needed to strengthen the muscles in a low-impact environment.This can create improved circulation, increased joint flexibility, and decreased joint pain. Muscle strength and endurance, cardio respiratory endurance, increased flexibility, range of motion, and agility are additional benefits.

Benefits of hydrotherapy

Simultaneously, water therapy stimulates, strengthens and relaxes the body. Water therapy may also improve balance, coordination, and increase overall energy levels, all while reducing pain and stress.

“I saw that after only a few sessions, Cookie was able to walk better and for a longer period of time,” said Smith. “I was thrilled at her recovery, which I did not expect would be so quick. I’m convinced that the water therapy really made a huge difference.”

But be aware. According to Jonathan Rudinger, founder and president of the Association of Canine Water Therapy, there may be some situations when hydrotherapy may cause more harm than good. “If the dog has any compromises to the ears, they are not candidates for water sessions. The water could exacerbate any imbalanced condition within the ear,” he says.

Other benefits of water therapy include:

  • Water increases circulation, ideal for skin and coat.
  • Water can increase lymph drainage, rid the body of toxins, and improve the immune system.
  • Water can encourage better digestion and can promote balance and coordination.
  • Hydrotherapy can also help dogs who need to shed a few pounds. A great form of low-impact exercise, regular walks on the underwater treadmill or swimming in a pool can help promote weight loss and general fitness in dogs.

Don’t try hydrotherapy without a professional

It is important to note that there is a huge difference in going to a hydrotherapy clinic with a trained medical professional versus taking your dog to the local dog park with a lake or a river, letting him jump in alone and calling that water therapy.

Without proper supervision in the open water, a dog recovering from surgery may not have the muscle strength needed to swim. The temperature of the water in a lake or pond is unregulated. Also, bacteria from the lake may cause an infection in a recent incision. Finally, if your dog is not properly stabilized in the water he may be putting pressure on the area in recovery and creates the risk of doing more harm than good.

As with starting any new medical treatment or fitness regimen, it is always best to check with your own veterinarian.

Has your dog ever needed hydrotherapy? What were your results? Tell us in the comments!

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About the author: Jennifer Cohen is a long-time animal advocate. She lives in South Florida with her husband Brian, their human twin daughters Sydney and Alexandria, their dogs Jake and Max, their parrot Sam, and their hamster Elliot, all rescues. Follow her on Twitter.