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Dog Hydrotherapy Can Heal and Prolong Your Dog’s Life

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We believe in whole body wellness. A healthy and balanced lifestyle for dogs includes more than supplements, food, and love. Just like humans, our furry friends benefit from low-impact exercise. We recently had a wonderful opportunity to interview Brittany Polecastro from Natural Healing Whole Dog Wellness in Chicago, a hydrotherapy facility. Listen to the full interview here and read about their clients case studies here

Hydrotherapy is Greek for “water healing” and it’s not new – but hydrotherapy for dogs is starting to gain popularity.    

It was originally used on horses and racing Greyhounds but is now available for dogs and cats in the United States, Canada, Japan, Western Europe, and the United Kingdom. 

What is Hydrotherapy?

Hydrotherapy, or water exercise, is performed in swimming pools or plexiglass chambers that hold an underwater treadmill. Because water makes exercise weightless, pets just like people, can exercise without putting stress on their bodies. Typically, the water temperature is between 80 to 88 degrees Fahrenheit. Some facilities even feature salt water. Referred to as thalassotherapy, it allows magnesium and potassium to be drawn into the blood stream while toxins are eliminated.  

Water therapy is not only used in treating illness and injuries but provides a great way to help even healthy dogs stay in optimal shape. Moreover, it helps to prolong a pet’s quality of life as they get older. Hydrotherapy hastens healing, loosens tight muscles, increases coordination, and improves balance as well as increases stamina and flexibility. It also provides a good overall cardiovascular workout. 

Timing is everything. Health professionals agree that therapy should begin as soon as possible. 

For example, Vets will often suggest hydrotherapy for postoperative canine patients. Some cases might require your dog to rest for a couple weeks before therapy, but the general consensus is to start as soon as possible.

Renowned veterinarian Dr. Karen Becker agrees. “A dog’s muscles begin to atrophy within just a day or two after an injury or surgery. If rehab isn’t started immediately, the area of the wound or injury will show increased swelling due to lack of movement. There can also be loss of muscle control, decreased stability in joints and increased stiffness of tendons and muscles. Normal weight-bearing activities that would arrest and reverse these conditions often can’t be allowed for weeks after surgery. But most dogs can begin passive physical therapy a few days after surgery and aquatic therapy as soon as their sutures are removed.”   

Hydrotherapy outside of post surgery recovery is also used for a wide range of disabling conditions, including gait (walking) abnormalities, hip dysplasia, arthritis, spinal cord injuries, inflammation, and obesity. It also helps the dog’s mental state. Hydrotherapy calms them while building confidence. It is a great way to literally get your pup in shape and stay in shape.

Hydrotherapy is also a great exercise for healthy dogs. “It’s one of the best forms of exercise,” says Brittany. “It’s better for them to swim if you want to build up their strength and stamina.”

Athletic and working dogs are trained in water to help keep them at peak physical condition. It’s never too late to start hydrotherapy with your dog. At the same time, your pup must be at least three months old before beginning the process.

Another popular form of hydrotherapy is the freestyle swimming pool. A trained rehab practitioner closely monitors the animal during the session as they run them through several exercises. The dog wears a flotation device and is held by the therapist so there is no risk of harm to your pet. In some pools, swimming dogs are supported and directed by overhead wires attached to their vests.

It is most important the dog feels safe in order for them to receive the full benefits of hydrotherapy. It is also calming and encouraging to the dog if their owner is present during the session. “They do notice when you’re not in the room,” says Polecastro. “You’re the most important thing to them and your support is their biggest reward.”

While owners are not allowed in the pool, they can take part by ensuring the pet has not eaten two hours before or an hour after therapy because that could cause cramps or make them sick.  And, make sure there’s a big towel ready for them in the car.    

Therapy Is Serious Business

We do not recommend you try this at home, please go to a trained professional. This is rehabilitation and not a day at the beach. You may mean well but it could easily prove more harmful than good. Here’s a sampling of techniques used in the rehab process: 

  • To strengthen hind legs, therapist holds out their hands against them because dogs instinctively kick against whatever their feet touch. Active kicking is also good for the hips.
  • If front legs need work, therapist presses against front paw pads and dog pushes away with even greater force.
  • Gently tilting dogs a little to the left or right shifts their center of gravity and creates an automatic adjustment of the spine.
  • Moving a tennis ball, toy, or treat left to right forces them to swim “figure 8’s” which is good for spinal motion.
  • For ataxia, which is a gross lack of coordination, alternating and simultaneous rhythmic pinching of toes establishes patterns to improve walking and balance.

As you can see, there’s more to hydrotherapy than paddling free-style in a jetted pool.   

Another option in pools is the use of a small floating platform, like a boogie board or miniature surfboard. This works well for small dogs because they get a serious core workout trying to keep their balance.

The healing powers of aquatic therapy are beyond believable from losing weight to being able to jump into the car or onto a sofa again. Here’s a true story that qualifies as a miracle.    

Rescue dog Shadow was hit by car in the mountains of Sierra Nevada. He suffered a fractured pelvis with damage so extensive surgery couldn’t restore movement to his legs. One hind leg was frozen in position and sticking straight out – he couldn’t walk. After just a few months, Shadow walked with only a barely perceptible limp.

Hydrotherapy Isn’t for Everyone

Despite its exceptional benefits, hydrotherapy should not be used for dogs with cardiovascular issues, infected wounds, or a serious fear of water. A history of aggression can be a problem or a dog truly terrified of water because of a past trauma. 

Cost is another factor. Hydrotherapy with a veterinarian or Certified Canine Rehabilitation Practitioner (CCRP) costs more than recreational swim sessions. Rates vary based on treatment needed and may last 30 minutes to one hour. Fees vary by region and facility so inquire before signing on. On average a first-time consult could be between $40-50 and follow-up sessions $20-35 for a half hour. Frequency of sessions is up to an owner unless otherwise advised by a veterinarian. But, it’s recommended that dogs in the postoperative period go twice a week.

Check out the facility!

The first step is to find a Hydrotherapy clinic near you. The international Association of Animal Massage & Bodywork (IAAMB) and the Association of Canine Water Therapy (ACWT) websites offer a comprehensive list of facilities across North America.

It’s a good idea to inspect the facility before the dog’s first session to make sure it’s clean and that the people handling your pet are licensed and accredited. Ask if vaccinations are required, how often pools are cleaned and chemicals used. It’s also a good idea to ask about the business’s background and the experience level of therapists working there.

Long Term Benefits of Hydrotherapy

Although evidence is anecdotal rather than from controlled clinical trials - veterinarians, rehabilitation practitioners, dog trainers, and owners agree that hydrotherapy can make a world of difference for dogs with physical problems. Not only that, the exercise releases endorphins which make your best friend feel better – just like in humans.  

One of the best long-term benefits of hydrotherapy is a better quality of life for your pet! 

Check out http://www.wholedogwellness.com/ to find out more about them.