As you might have guessed, hydrotherapy is a water-based treatment that works to gently rehabilitate joints, especially after injury or surgery. Think of it as a form of controlled swimming, which takes place in a specially heated pool or on an underwater treadmill. You know the feeling of being ‘weightless’ in water? Your pet will feel that, too, and because it’s a non-weight bearing environment, it’s easy on their joints.
When might my pet need hydrotherapy?
Vets refer pets for hydrotherapy for many reasons, including pre- and post-surgical conditioning, getting obesity under control, painless exercising for pets with arthritis, and rehabilitation and pain management.
Francoise Deavin, hydrotherapist, veterinary nurse and co-owner of the Pet Health & Therapy Centre in Welling, says hydrotherapy techniques can have far-reaching benefits.
‘Hydrotherapy is a great fitness option for pets.' she explains. ‘We treat more than 800 animals, including dogs, cats and smaller pets such as rabbits, every week for a number of reasons. The gentle movements help speed up recovery following surgery, and can also slow the progression of degenerative conditions.’
The technique strengthens and repair muscles and joints safely, without adding any unnecessary pressure. And because it’s more difficult for pets to move quickly in the water, they are less likely to injure themselves while exercising.
‘Pressure on joints and limbs can aggravate some conditions, so hydrotherapy allows pets to exercise in an environment where there’s no pressure on the affected areas. It’s a good option for obese pets, as they can build fitness and lose weight without putting excessive pressure on their already weakened joints,’ explains Francoise.
But hydrotherapy isn’t just about rehabilitation. Francoise says it can also help your pet to improve their circulation and correct certain developmental issues, such as naturally occurring hip and back problems. ‘When a congenital condition is identified in a puppy, it may be that surgery isn't possible until he or she is more physically mature,’ she explains. ‘During the time the puppy is building up to the surgery, hydrotherapy can be used to help maintain their fitness levels.’
But my pet hates water!
An experienced hydrotherapist will slowly introduce pool-shy pets to the water until they’re relaxed enough to give it a go. ‘Most of our patients are dogs,’ says Francoise, ‘but every breed takes to the water differently.' After about 5 sessions, they become acclimatised to the pool. And while cats generally don't like the water, with desensitisation, they can get used to it too. We've even treated a rabbit – they’re surprisingly good at swimming!'
Your vet may be able to recommend you to a hydrotherapist who specialises in more sensitive pets, like cats. 'If we treat an animal who’s nervous of the water or just in general, we'll often use the underwater treadmill first,’ says Francoise. ‘That way, they can still touch the floor and we can slowly build up the water level around them, so they have more time to get used to the idea.’
What can I expect from my first session?
Whether your pet is a dog or cat, a small breed or large breed, you can expect the session to follow a basic structure. Usually, each new session begins with a full examination and a discussion about existing exercise routines. The hydrotherapy team observes their natural gait on land and fits them with a buoyancy harness to ensure they’re always safe in the water. Next, they’ll gently introduce them to the water on a platform in the pool.
‘There’s a hydrotherapist in the pool with the animal at all times, so they’re constantly receiving reassurance and praise,’ she says.
Once they’re used to the water, the therapist will have them swim slowly from platform to platform, massaging their limbs and muscles as they go. A session lasts about 10-20 minutes and at the end, the pet gets a quick rinse and is dried off immediately to keep them warm.
The team at Francoise’s centre also uses an underwater camera to monitor and record the treatment: ‘We can use the video to determine how the animal’s limbs are functioning and identify what can be improved.’
Finding a hydrotherapist
As hydrotherapy sessions are tailored to your pet’s individual condition, you’ll need to be referred by your vet so talk to them first. They’ll tell you if hydrotherapy is right for your pet, and can refer you to a registered and reputable clinic with trained staff.
Test the waters
When Amber the Rottweiler was diagnosed with Bilateral Elbow Arthritis at the age of eight, her future looked grim. But her owners, Helen and Stuart Dacre, were determined to find a better way.
‘After her diagnosis, we were told Amber would spend the rest of her life on pain relief medication and that the dosage would increase with age. She would also be left with a permanent and painful lameness. Even worse than all that, we were advised to not let her play with other dogs or be let off her lead again for fear that her condition would be aggravated and worsen.
‘Amber is such a sociable dog and we were saddened to think her life would change so dramatically. She was wincing in pain with every step so we pestered our vet to look into alternative treatments that might improve her prognosis.
‘When he suggested hydrotherapy, we were a bit skeptical – Amber had never been out of her depth in water before and, to be honest, there wasn’t a lot of information out there. We were keen, though, to try something, anything, to help, but we held out little hope that it would make a lasting difference.
‘We couldn’t have been more wrong. After just three vet-referred sessions in the pool involving lots of treats to encourage her to walk on the underwater treadmill, Amber’s lameness was significantly reduced and she stopped wincing altogether. We couldn’t believe it. Since then, we’ve kept up with weekly sessions in the pool and, three-and-a-half years later, her lameness has never returned – not even on the coldest days.
‘We still take her out for daily walks and, although she takes medication, it’s the same dosage now as when she was first diagnosed. Best of all, we got our happy girl back.’
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