“Why is she swimming like that? It looks like she doesn’t know how to swim!”
These were my husband’s words when we started hydrotherapy with our rescue dog, Sunshine. At the time she was three years old, and my husband was shocked that she could not swim. Don’t all dogs swim?
They do not. Just like people, some dogs need to be taught to swim. Using a flotation device with a handle, I supported Sunshine from above, making sure she was horizontal in the water. In the beginning, she would panic, thrashing her front legs, but she soon got the hang of it and relaxed. Gradually I released my grip on the handle, and within weeks she was swimming beautifully.
Exercising in water is so good for dogs – just as it is for humans. Sunshine had been diagnosed with hip dysplasia, and water exercises were the ideal way for her to build muscle strength without suffering impact on her joints.
The beauty of hydrotherapy
Hydrotherapy or aquatic therapy is the term we use for various types of exercise in water. In animals, we use swimming in pools, whirlpools, hot tubs, lakes, rivers and the sea. We also use underwater treadmills.
Both these forms of hydrotherapy – swimming and the underwater treadmill – take place in a dynamic environment. The biological effects of exercising in this environment are due to the principles of hydrodynamics, which we really need to understand in order to grasp why exercise in water differs so markedly from exercise on land.
Buoyancy is key. Buoyancy is the force experienced as an up-thrust, acting in the opposite direction to the force of gravity. Depending on a pet’s fat content, some pets are more buoyant than others. Buoyancy allows a dog to exercise with minimal stress to the joints, with almost no load on injured tissues, making it a gentle and effective form of exercise.
Swim your pet regularly, if you can – in a pool, dam, lake or river – but do it safely and in a controlled way to get the full benefits.
Just as with humans, safety in the water needs to be our first consideration. Dogs can be impulsive, panic, and make disastrous decisions if we’re not there to guide them!
Here are my top tips for safely swimming your pet:
Top tips for safe swimming
- No rocks: Make sure the water is safe by checking for rocks, broken glass or any jagged edges below the water’s surface. Never let your dog just plunge in without a care – this is how accidents happen.
- Drink first: It is not a good idea to drink chlorine or lake water that you do not know. Offer your dog a drink of clean water before he enters the water, so that he is not tempted to drink while swimming.
- Show him the steps: In a pool, teach your pet where the steps are before you start a swimming session. This gives your dog a sense of safety and a measure of control, should he feel the need to get out.
- Heated pools are ideal for swimming, as they help to increase blood flow to the muscles, but ensure the water is 30 degrees Celsius or under.
- Start with support: If your dog is nervous or unaccustomed to water, start by using a flotation device (life jacket) or harness. Make sure it’s bright and has a handle on the back. Stand in the pool so that you can hold your dog, giving support and helping to control where he goes. Over several weeks, gradually lessen your grip on the handle, until your dog is able to swim competently alone.
- Face away: When using a harness, face your dog away from you to avoid being badly scratched. You might also try using booties over his front paws for your own protection.
- Getting in and out of pools or lakes is where most injuries occur. Be there to help, so that your dog gets in and out in a calm, controlled way.
- Pace the swimming time: Start off by doing 30 seconds of swimming with a one-minute rest, four times in one session. This will give a total of two minutes of swimming, which is quite enough to start with.
- Do this three times a week for the first few weeks. Remember your pet will be using muscles he has not used before. Ensure that he has access to a step or resting place so that he doesn’t overdo it, which may set him back in the long run.
- Gradually increase swimming times by 15 seconds per round of swimming, until your dog is on two minutes of continuous swimming with a one-minute rest, repeated once or twice. Make any changes very slowly, even if he appears to be swimming with ease. You will only know the real effects the next day, when your dog may be stiff and sore. That is exactly what we want to avoid!
- Rinse off: Rinse your dog with fresh water after swimming to decrease skin irritation from chlorine and chemicals.
Keep it up!
The benefits of swimming for your dog are so worth the trouble you may take to get him in the water regularly. If you feel unsure about handling this alone, try to find a canine hydrotherapist to help with regular swimming. Hydrotherapists are trained to swim pets safely, and usually have properly designed facilities with warm water, which will make the experience more appealing to reluctant dogs.
Keep it safe
We easily forget that dogs need protection and guidance, just like children. We would not let our young children swim unsupervised – let’s not allow our dogs to, either. Make sure your pool is well fenced, to prevent diving or falling in when you’re not home.
Some dogs have heart problems, so do speak to your vet before you start swimming your dog regularly. Swimming may not be a good idea if your dog is cardiovascularly compromised, because of the hydrostatic pressure on his chest and the vasodilation caused by warm water.
The underwater treadmill
The underwater treadmill is an excellent piece of equipment for the rehabilitation of certain muscles and certain conditions. You might have a vet or vet rehab therapist close by who makes use of one; enquire about a course of treatment, which need not be exorbitantly expensive, and can make a huge difference to your pet’s quality of life.
The underwater treadmill is useful for dogs that have suffered hip dysplasia or cruciate ruptures, which tend to cause wasting of the extensor muscles. These are the muscles that support your dog’s knees and hips; once wasted, they need be reactivated to perform their function properly. The underwater treadmill is ideal because it allows your dog to exercise in a reduced weight-bearing environment while promoting active extensor muscle contraction. Over a course of treatment, the muscles are likely to regain their strength and your dog will feel the difference in his overall joint mobility and “bounce”.
The great thing about the underwater treadmill is that it allows one to change the water level according to the joint on which one is focusing. If we need to improve flexion (bending) of the elbows, as is the case in elbow dysplasia, then we set the water level at or higher than the elbow joint. This encourages the dog to try and lift its legs out of the water, increasing its range of motion and flexibility.
Both forms of hydrotherapy ∼ swimming and exercise on the underwater treadmill ∼ are hugely beneficial for dogs. I have seen tremendous results in my patients after hydrotherapy, with long-term improvements in strength and mobility.
There are certain conditions where the underwater treadmill is especially indicated ∼ hip dysplasia and cruciate ruptures, for example, ∼ but swimming is a marvelous alternative. If the treadmill is not an option for you, I highly recommend regular, supervised swimming as a form of exercise for your pet.
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