We all know that being in a warm water environment – whether it’s a heated indoor pool, jacuzzi spa, or just a bathroom tub – relieves stress and helps ease aches and pains. Removing pressure on our joints and relaxing our muscles, the natural buoyancy of water brings us relief from the pull of gravity, and it can help our canine companions with pain management as well.
Whether an active young pup or a canine senior citizen,dogs with injuries, those recovering from surgery, and those living with ongoing joint diseases such as hip or elbow dysplasia experience pain. Pain is a consistent symptom of many of my canine patients. Slowing down on walks, refusing to do usual activities such as going up and down stairs, limping, and not putting full weight down on a leg are all signs that a dog is in pain. Untreated pain contributes to the vicious cycle of disuse muscle atrophy and leads to progressive disability and risk for further injury.
There are many pain medications and joint supplements that can help block pain perception in different ways, but they may not encourage full return to normal use of a leg.
However, when these pain management methods are coupled with warm water therapies the results can be amazing. Joint movements are made more comfortable in warm water and the resistance of the water challenges muscles, keeping them strong and functional without causing pain. The buoyancy of water helps weakened patients stand and put weight down on injured legs much sooner than they would on land.
It is commonly observed that patients start to walk more readily in a water treadmill than on solid ground. This is because the buoyancy of the water supports the patients’ weight while the treadmill moves their paws for them, basically “showing” the muscles how to perform the movements that will be required of them when walking on land.
Warm water therapies (86-94 degrees F.) offer muscle relaxation, while the hydro-static pressure of deep water on limbs acts like a supportive wrap around immersed body parts, helping to reduce swelling and alleviate pain. Also, natural pain-blocking endorphins are released in a dog’s brain after exercising in water, and this too helps elevate mood, increase appetite, and relieve pain.
But what if your dog absolutely detests getting into the bath or turns and runs as fast as he can when the waves start lapping at his paws on the beach? Not all dogs are born with a natural love of the water or the instinct to swim, however all dogs can be gently acclimated to hydro-therapy and most will eventually learn to enjoy it, if done in a safe and supportive environment.
Encouragement from loving family members combined with gentle handling by experienced, specially trained canine swim coaches and certified canine rehabilitation therapists can make it possible for even the most water-phobic dog to benefit from swimming or walking on an underwater treadmill. It can take a few sessions to get the hang of it, but the majority of dogs will come to associate getting in the water with feeling good and will soon learn to enjoy their hydro-therapy sessions.
Another benefit of aquatic therapy is that it raises metabolism and helps overweight dogs with weight loss, decreasing fat, strengthening muscles, and reducing the de-conditioning effects of restricted activity, especially with dogs who have been in too much pain to go for long walks.
Dogs who lose even a few pounds experience less pain and are more active and mobile on land, which greatly improves their muscle strength and increases theirability to go out and enjoy life more fully. All things considered, hydro-therapy can be a very beneficial part of your canine’s health care, especially when painful joints or excess pounds have slowed them down.
Dr. Ilana Strubel, DVM, CVSMT, CCRT is the owner of A Well Adjusted Pet an integrative veterinary practice. She is a certified canine rehabilitation therapist who specializes in hydro-therapy, physical rehabilitation, and chiropractic care, as well as acupressure, herbal medicine, canine behavior, and nutrition. She sees patients on a mobile basis and also at The Rex Center, a holistic canine fitness center in Pacifica . For more details about hydro-therapy visit: awelladjustedpet.com/physical-rehab/underwater-treadmill.
Main article photo by: Courtesy The Rex Center