Explore Hydrotherapy and Its Health Benefits for Dogs

Joint pain and obesity are just two of the health issues hydrotherapy may help with.

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Back in high school, I suffered a knee injury that put me out of commission for weeks. As I gradually progressed to physical rehabilitation, my doctor suggested hydrotherapy to expedite healing. He explained that because of the increased resistance deep water naturally provides, a five-minute swim can often deliver the fitness benefits associated with a 2-mile run … minus joint impact. Water’s added buoyancy, he said, supports the musculoskeletal frame, facilitating free movement that can actually make exercise safer.

I recalled this experience many years later when I sought out canine hydrotherapy for one of my aging pups. He was struggling with a range of geriatric issues, including general joint discomfort and advancing arthritis. My veterinarian explained that water-based exercise is great for problems like this because it has the unique effect of relaxing, invigorating, and challenging the body all at once.

For most animal lovers, maintaining our pet’s comfort and quality of life at every age is important. With my own pets, I’ve found that even minor joint pain or stiffness can often lead to significant levels of immobility over time. Muscles atrophy due to sustained lack of use. Eventually, even walking becomes far too challenging and strenuous to deliver any therapeutic improvement.

Water, conversely, eliminates the need to bear weight. Warm water in particular can soothe aches and pains — and most canines instinctively begin paddling in deeper water, thereby engaging a full range of muscles and joints.

As founder and resident “leader of the pack” at Natural Healing, a canine hydrotherapy facility based in west suburban Chicago, Lee Deaton says that swimming offers all of these wellness benefits and more.

“We’ve regularly assisted dogs struggling with hip dysplasia, spinal and joint issues, ligament injuries, osteoarthritis, obesity, and post-surgical discomfort,” she notes. “Yet we also routinely assist owners who simply want to exercise their canine. They may want to get their dog used to the water, or keep him fit and active during the cold winter months. We’ve even worked with several clients who need to help their pedigreed show dog stay trim and build muscle for upcoming competitions. In every one of these cases, swimming is a highly effective option.”

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Safety-first swimming by Shutterstock.

Deaton certainly knows her topic, since Natural Healing bills itself as the first facility to specifically design a pool and offer swimming for dogs in the greater Chicagoland area. “I’ve been doing this for more than 14 years,” she says, “and I’ve seen swimming help with an array of canine conditions and ailments. It’s a natural approach, and completely drug-free — not to mention extremely enjoyable for most dogs, once they get used to the water.”

The thoughtful, careful design of Natural Healing clearly makes safety, positive reinforcement, and enjoyment central components of the swimming experience. The facility features two permanent in-ground, commercial-sized pools with hydraulic-lift platforms. This means pets never need to navigate stairs or slippery wet ramps getting in and out of the water. Concrete benches are built into the pools themselves, giving canines a stable platform where they can rest between laps, or walk in a treadmill fashion while only partially submerged.

The pool water itself remains free of chlorine and other chemicals. Instead, it’s balanced using special copper ionization technology that destroys bacteria in the water. This helps ensure that canine clients don’t develop swimming-related coat and/or fur issues. Filters are also cleaned regularly to ensure that the pools remain free of hair and other organic material.

The pool water is 4 feet deep and constantly maintained at 90 to 92 degrees F. Deaton explains that this helps relax muscles as opposed to colder water, which can cause muscles to tense and tighten. The facility also features separate, enclosed rooms with blow dryers and fresh towels because drying canines thoroughly helps minimize the chance for hot spots. Carpeted waiting areas and hallways provide a secure, dry surface that allows frail or hurting dogs to walk more comfortably. Especially anxious or reactive dogs are permitted to use a private entrance.

Is dog anxiety around water a common occurrence? According to Deaton, not necessarily. Many canines are natural swimmers, and for those who need a bit more coaxing, she observes, the owner can sometimes be a bit more nervous than the pooch.

“Our goal is to make each visit rewarding for everyone,” she says. “So during the first visit, we’re mainly trying to figure out what motivates that particular dog. Is it treats, toys, praise? We ask the owner to walk along the perimeter of the pool during that initial visit, remaining clearly within sight. The dog typically begins following. Seeing the dog safely enter the water reassures the owner, and that canine gains comfort merely from the owner’s presence in the same space.”

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Water dog by Shutterstock.

Deaton notes that dogs are generally creatures of habit, which can be advantageous when getting them used to a pool environment.

“Dogs prefer routine,” she says, “so once we’ve determined what helps motivate a particular dog, we establish a specific routine and keep it as consistent as possible across every visit.”

Soon, she says, most dogs are willing and eager to begin swimming laps the moment they arrive. Deaton currently swims all of the dogs herself and accompanies each pup during their swim. Fitted canine life vests with handles help facilitate gentle guidance and assistance without forcing.

If you’re interested in exploring the natural, healing benefits of canine hydrotherapy, how can you find a safe and reputable facility in your area? Here’s a handy checklist of questions you can ask in advance:

  1. Does your facility collaborate with veterinarians and other certified animal healthcare providers?
  2. Do you use chlorine or other potentially irritating chemicals in your water?
  3. Do you use full-body dryers or other specific measures to help prevent hot spots?
  4. How many years have you been offering canine hydrotherapy?
  5. Do you have client references or testimonials I can review?
  6. Do you use special life vests or other guides to gently assist dogs in the water?
  7. How many canines are permitted in your pool at once?
  8. Will someone always be in the water with my pet?
  9. How do you acclimate dogs who are nervous about swimming or entering the water?
  10. Since chilly water can cause tight tissues to tense, what’s the temperature of your pool?
  11. What measures do you take to ensure general canine safety?
  12. Do you require vet approval and/or certain preventive measures before allowing dogs to swim?

Hydrotherapy can offer outstanding healing and wellness benefits — especially when you select a clean, reputable facility that prioritizes canine safety and comfort.

Top photo: Swimming Husky by Shutterstock.

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Marybeth Bittel

Marybeth lives in the Midwest with her wonderful husband, and her rescue dogs Grant and Maizy — all of them Heinz 57 mixed-breed types. A freelance writer and marketing consultant, she’s been rehabilitating severely abused rescues for over two decades. She’s currently working toward specialized certifications in animal nutrition counseling. Connect with her on LinkedIn or check out her family Instagram feed.

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