Hydrotherapy for Dogs: Underwater Treadmills and Swim Therapy for Rehab

Medical articles
A dog standing in an underwater treadmill used for hydrotherapy.

Hydrotherapy is a form of canine physical therapy used in the rehabilitation of dogs with neuromuscular or orthopedic issues. This increasingly-common form of therapy is now considered the gold standard for dogs after undergoing orthopedic surgery or when other musculoskeletal issues arise.

What does hydrotherapy for dogs look like?

Hydrotherapy is a general term for any physical therapy that involves exercising in water. Swimming in the ocean, for example, can be considered a form of hydrotherapy. However, in veterinary terms, hydrotherapy includes:

  • Teaching dogs to swim or move in water, undertaking a series of exercises in a pool, typically with the assistance of a life vest.

  • Using a filled bathtub to aid in the completion of specific exercises not otherwise doable for disabled dogs.

  • Increasingly, hydrotherapy for dogs involves the use of underwater treadmills, employing the natural resistance of water to build strength and functionality.

Underwater Treadmill Physical Therapy for Dogs

These large, rectangular, elevated pools are like the typical treadmill you might find at the gym, encased in a giant transparent tank so that dogs’ underwater movements can be easily visualized. The level of water can be adjusted, as can the speed of the treadmill. Finally, jets of water can be directed towards the patient to increase and decrease resistance to meet the needs of each patient.

Most of these treadmills are found only at specialty centers where they can be utilized for the more severely compromised patients who come their way. This equipment is expensive! Moreover, the intensive maintenance required makes these units difficult for general practices to afford.

Dogs who require underwater treadmill hydrotherapy will typically be exercised on the equipment more than once a week for several weeks. The regimen prescribed depends on the patient’s specific issue and varies according to the individual’s progress.

What does canine hydrotherapy do?

Hydrotherapy offers dogs a wide variety of benefits. Generally speaking, these include:

  • Increased range of motion of joints: The joints can flex and extend more readily when dogs are given the opportunity to move in a lower gravity environment.

  • Strengthening of muscles: The natural resistance of water and the ability to stand or swim aids in the use of atrophied muscles.

  • Reduction of pain: The soothing properties of water speak for themselves. Inflammation relief is typical.

  • Improvement in stamina

Which dogs benefit from canine hydrotherapy?

The uses of hydrotherapy are wide-ranging. This kind of physical therapy is good for:

Why is hydrotherapy so good for dogs?

  • Buoyancy helps with balance and stability for dogs whose weakness makes gravity an everyday challenge

  • Resistance helps build muscle. Strength and function is improved for dogs who engage in swim therapy or exercise on underwater treadmills

  • Exercise on land may not be possible and these dogs really need to start moving

  • The water feels good. This is especially true when the water is temperature controlled, as it is with most underwater treadmill units

  • Water has healing properties reducing inflammation and pain as a result of the hydrostatic pressure it affords

Is there any down side to canine hydrotherapy?

The only down side to hydrotherapy is the risk of the water itself. Some dogs will have post-surgical incision sites that might be compromised by exposure to water for prolonged periods of time. Infections from inadequately-maintained underwater treadmill units, contaminated pools, or natural bodies of water is also a risk.

Does pet insurance cover hydrotherapy?

Our full coverage pet insurance covers hydrotherapy, along with a variety of other alternative therapies, for all covered conditions.