If you have a paralyzed dog you’ve probably Googled the terms canine water therapy, aqua therapy or hydrotherapy. You probably know they refer to a popular form of rehabilitation that involves placing a disabled dog in a warm swimming pool. But do you really know what to expect if your dog is enrolled in canine water therapy?
This story if a firsthand account of what I learned as I followed a dog named Nala through her rehab session.
The official definition of hydrotherapy, water therapy and aqua therapy says they are all names for a method of rehabilitation that helps dogs recover after surgery and slows down the effects of degenerative conditions.
It uses the buoyancy of water to safely deliver exercises to dogs in a reduced weight-bearing environment.
I learned from my visit that hydrotherapy is a powerful rehab technique for dogs with paralysis or hind end weakness. The “Hydrostatic Pressure” of water can enable some paralyzed dogs to stand on their own. And a technique called “Twiddling” a dog’s tail can stimulate the nerves in the spine.
I saw how dogs love being in the pool and how the warm water, massaging jets and exercises make them stronger.
Water therapy is a technique pet owners should seriously consider for your disabled dog.
My visit to a canine water therapy wellness clinic
Kathy Carr is the owner of Canine Bodywork & Aquatics in Henderson, NV. She has been on my radar since she opened the first hydrotherapy clinic in my area.
Kathy is a Small Animal Massage Practitioner, a Veterinary Assistant and is certified in Pet First Aid and CPR. She is a member of the International Association of Animal Massage and Bodywork and the Association of Canine Water Therapy. All of this makes her extremely qualified to work with dogs in the water.
I was thrilled when Kathy invited me to watch one of her favorite patients
Before I share what I learned, let me explain what you’ll see in an aqua therapy clinic.
Kathy’s clinic has a large 8ft. by 20ft. and 4.5ft deep swimming pool in the center of the building. It is actually at the top of a ramp. Below is a waiting area for the next patient and their pet parent.
The pool is kept between 85-90 degrees. Warm water is essential for hydrotherapy because it helps to reduce inflammation, pain and release toxins from the body.
There are jets like you see in a hot tub on all sides of the swimming pool. This is another essential component of water therapy. The jets have been set to a soothing low speed for Nala. They are used to give her a relaxing massage while she exercises. Nala loved the feel of the jets and leaned into them whenever she got near the edge of the pool.
Kathy explained that she sets the jets to a more forceful speed for some patients. Swimming against the higher jet flow is used to help dogs build muscle and gives them a cardio workout.
She told me about an energetic Pitbull who loves swimming with the jets at full speed. She said it’s a great way for the young dog to spend his energy instead of causing mischief at home. Kathy explained that some of her patients are healthy and use the pool to increase their level of fitness.
Kathy went on to tell me more about the swimming pool. It is kept clean with a UV light system. Pool chemicals are never used. The dogs can actually drink the water in the pool, but Kathy doesn’t encourage it.
Next it was time to meet Ann and Nala.
Here is what to expect when your dog starts canine water therapy
Ann brings sweet silver-faced Nala to rehab once a week. Several years ago, the 11-year-old had TPLO surgery to stabilize her knee. She comes to aqua therapy to maintain her overall fitness and keep her joints flexible.
Nala used to get out of breath when she went for a walk. She doesn’t experience that since working with Kathy.
Before getting in the water Kathy dressed Nala in a dog lifejacket. She also added a headband to keep water out of her ears. Later in the session, the lifejacket was removed so Nala could swim on her own, although Kathy kept her arms under Nala’s belly the entire time.
Kathy walked Nala to the first step of the pool and gently led her into the water. She explained she never rushes a dog to get into the water. Nala has been seeing Kathy for nearly a year and floated away from the step without any hesitation.
Kathy supported Nala’s torso with her arms and walked the dog back and forth in the pool. It looked like Kathy was doing all of the work until she pointed out she was checking Nala’s body for tight spots in her muscles. Today the dog was tight in her chest and upper spine.
Kathy massaged Nala’s tight areas while she continued to move Nala through the water. Eventually the movement loosened Nala’s joints. Then it was time for Nala to start her workout.
I was also told to watch the dog’s hind legs. Even with Kathy holding her, Nala was kicking her back legs to swim. She pointed out how hard Nala was working and that a 5 minute swim was equivalent to a 5 mile run on land.
Later when Kathy removed the lifejacket she explained how supporting Nala’s torso was like doing a plank exercise with the dog. It worked her core. And Nala was getting even more exercise by using her tail as she swam. Dogs use their tail as a rudder. This all happened while Nala was being supported in Kathy’s arms.
Because Nala’s hips were tight, Kathy did an exercise specifically to release the hip flexors. She placed the dog’s hips so they could hang over her arms and dangle.
A time to bond
Nala’s session is also a time for Ann to bond with her dog. Kathy said it is an important part of aqua therapy.
Ann sat by the side of the swimming pool throughout Nala’s one-hour session. She was her dog’s constant cheerleader. She praised Nala each time she stopped at Ann’s side of the pool.
Finally, it was time to step back onto land. Kathy helped Nala onto a mat with a big plush towel. She explained how the therapy continued while she dried off Nala’s fur. It was an opportunity to give a therapeutic massage and rub essential oils into Nala’s skin. Kathy uses an oil called Path to Comfort by Frogworks.
Two important exercises for paralyzed dogs
Hydrostatic Pressure – This is the pressure that is exerted by water to create equilibrium, due to the force of gravity. In plain English, when a dog is placed in warm water of about 85-90 degrees with the water at shoulder height of your dog; the weight of the water allows a paralyzed dog to stand on their own.
I think this would feel like a miracle for your paralyzed dog. With the right circumstances, hydrostatic pressure helps your dog stand like they did when they were healthy.
Twiddle the tail – This technique is about gently rolling the tip of your dog’s tail between your fingers. The effect can stimulate nerves in the hind end and promote spinal walking. And at the very least it will promote a paralyzed dog to kick his hind legs as he swims.
How to do water therapy at home
First you need a warm body of water at 90 degrees that is shoulder height for your dog while standing. This is the best way to create buoyancy.
Kathy suggested using a horse trough for a larger dog or a child’s swimming pool. And a bathtub can be used for a smaller dog. Remember to never leave your dog alone in the water.
Then support your dog’s torso as they move through the water. Twiddle their tail to stimulate the nerves, watch to see if they kick their hind legs and help them stand in the water. You can also add in a gentle massage.
Kathy recommends taking their favorite toy in the water to get your dog used to it.
Hydrotherapy can benefit a wide array of problems:
- IVDD patients with lumbar spine problems. Hydrotherapy Is Not Recommended for dogs with spine problems in the neck and those with Wobbler’s disease.
- Degenerative spine problems that do not involve the neck.
- Hip and elbow dysplasia
- Arthritis – to increase joint range of motion
- Loosen tight muscles
- TPLO or CCL post-surgical patients
- Decrease pain
- Increase circulation
- Increase muscle strength
- Reduce swelling
- Increase flexibility
- Increase balance and coordination
- Increase range of motion
- Emotional support for a fearful dog
- Exercise for senior dog or high energy young dog
- Lifestyle skills like teaching a puppy how to swim
- Hospice care