From time immemorial, humankind has looked to water for survival, health and healing. Going back as far as the fifth century, Hippocrates prescribed baths in fresh spring water to cure a plethora of illnesses. The Romans and Egyptians are also well known to have used a combination of hot and cold water, in often ornate and lavish public, and private baths.
During the nineteenth century, there was a rise in the popularity and money invested in racing, specifically using horses and dogs. The Horse Racing fraternity achieved excellent results in using sea swimming and water in equine rehabilitation and the prevention of injury. This drew the attention of Greyhound Racing professionals, who embraced hydrotherapy and adapted it to supporting canine physiology.
Since then, the multiple benefits of water treatments have become readily available to all guardians of canine companions.
Canine hydrotherapy is ideal for cases and patients where chronic, post-operative, pre-operative, developmental or neurological conditions make weight bearing exercise difficult. It is also excellent for developing stamina and endurance, toning and building muscle and, increasing overall fitness and agility in obese canines, or canine athletes.
The upward thrust of water against a body lessens the effect of gravity and allows the canine patient greater range of motion without experiencing pain or pressure in injured joints (such as in osteoarthritis).
Water also exerts pressure on the body as its depth increases, often this is experienced by the canine patient as an increased sense of stability and is especially useful in cases of neurological damage (such as in degenerative spinal disorders). It also assists in improving circulation by encouraging accumulated swelling to be returned naturally back into the body.
Water molecules tend to adhere, and at its surface, water exerts cohesive force which can be used to increase workload in a specific area, muscle group or joint (such as muscle development or fitness). This attribute can also be used to protect a specific area if required (such as post-operatively). Muscle wastage can be reversed and muscle bulk increased.
The frictional resistance, which is a result of water cohesion, combined with turbulence at the surface of water can play an important part in developing the canine patient’s unconscious perception of movement and spatial orientation (proprioception). This can be particularly valuable for ‘working dogs’ or canine athletes. In addition, in water, the heart needs to work harder, becoming fitter and stronger. Most of the major muscle groups are toned during hydrotherapy and the general overall fitness of the canine can be improved.
Canines are treated in heated water, which increases blood circulation and improves the supply of oxygen and nutrients to, and the removal of cellular waste products from, muscles. Not only does this lead to a reduction of any swelling and muscle relaxation, but the patient will also experience less pain and stiffness.
Hydrotherapy is usually performed in pools or aquatic (or underwater) treadmills. Each has specific applications and cater for a wide range of conditions.
Aquatic or underwater treadmills are particularly useful in cases where respiratory and heart conditions demand reduced pressure on the chest. The ability to alter water height allows for variety in buoyancy and offers alternatives from non-weight bearing to full-weight bearing, and everything between. It also can be used to determine the flexion and extension angle of a specific joint, which is not possible whilst swimming. Treadmills, which allow the therapist to stand with the dog in the water, enable the therapist to support the patient and allow her to optimise gait changes during a session.
Hydrotherapy pools are particularly effective in cases where a canine patient is in pain or is not able to bear its weight after injury or surgery. Here, hydrostatic pressure allows the canine to perform movements that it finds difficult on land. In addition, there may be a manual or electric hoist for lifting canine patients in and out of the water. The hoist can also be used to support the patients in the water, and allow the therapist to perform the required exercises. Harnesses and flotation devices can be added to a treatment depending on the age and ability of the canine patient in question.
Hydrotherapy has been used very successfully with the canine patient who
- has had surgery or will be having surgery, such as hip replacements, Femur Head Amputation, or Cranial Cruciate Rupture;
- has a developmental condition, such as Hip and Elbow Dysplasia, or Patella Luxation;
- has a degenerative condition, such as Osteoarthritis or Spondylosis;
- has a neurological condition, such as Disc Disease, Degenerative Myelopathy (DM), Fibro-Cartilaginous Embolism (FCE), Spinal injury/trauma/shock or Neuromuscular Disease;
- has had a soft tissue injury, such as tendinitis, or muscle or ligament strain;
- is obese, or has a heart or respiratory condition;
- is a working dog or canine athlete;
- requires improvement in
- cardiovascular and muscle endurance,
- core strength,
- gait modification,
- muscle bulk,
As with all physical therapies, the skill and ability of the Rehabilitation Veterinarian, Physiotherapist or Hydrotherapist is key to the success of the treatment, so you need to check that they are appropriately trained and have the experience to handle your canine companion’s specific condition. It is also important to remember that any rehabilitative program should be undertaken with the direction of your Veterinary Doctor or Surgeon. Hydrotherapy is now widely recognised as a positive adjunct to conventional veterinary care.
In addition to facility based therapy, a Home program can be custom designed by your Rehabilitation Veterinarian, Physiotherapist or Hydrotherapist so that you can maintain your canine companion’s health and physical wellbeing in the comfort of familiar surroundings.
B.Sc (Hons) B.V.Sc CertSCVA
Certified Canine Rehabilitation Practitioner CCRP
Dr Tanya Grantham has been involved in the Veterinary Physical Rehabilitation of cats and dogs since 2009 when she opened her Hydrotherapy and Physical Rehabiltation Practice: Animal Health and Hydro, in Benoni, Gauteng, South Africa. Dr Tanya has supported Husky Rescue SA – HRSA – since 2009 by offering pro bono treatments in the form of post-operative rehabilitation for rescued Huskies.