Water Therapy for Ailing Pooches

Hanging out by the pool is no longer an activity just for humans. Disabled and arthritic dogs can now benefit from a wet workout with the warmth and weightlessness that water affords.

The first time Heidi Powers saw Shadow, she never envisioned taking the beautiful Weimaraner home.

"I took one look at him and thought to myself, 'You're setting yourself up for heartache. You'd better walk away right now,'" the Petaluma, California, resident recalls of her visit to an animal rescue facility in 2003. One of Shadow's hind legs was frozen in position and sticking straight out, and he couldn't walk. "I thought, 'Nothing could help this poor dog.' "

Picked up by the Heaven's Gate animal sanctuary after a car hit him on Highway 50 in the Sierra Nevada mountains, Shadow was lucky to be alive. But he suffered a fractured pelvis, with damage so extensive that even surgery wasn't able to restore movement to his legs. A veterinarian who treated Shadow had already concluded that if the dog didn't start improving soon, amputation or euthanasia would be the only choice.

Fortunately, Powers didn't walk away from Shadow. Instead, she carried the 55-pound dog to the car and over the next few months embarked on a journey involving a dizzying round of vets and rehabilitation specialists. Today, at 6 years old, Shadow walks with only a barely perceptible limp. In fact, he can run and frolic with Powers's other Weimaraners. Among the treatments that helped Shadow, the one that made the most dramatic difference was a practice that few dog owners have even heard of: hydrotherapy.

Gaining credibility

Long used for humans suffering from arthritis pain and disabilities, hydrotherapy has only become available for dogs in recent years. Canine water therapy is a rehabilitation program that allows dogs to exercise in water. The fluid environment gives them greater support to minimize stress on their joints, while at the same time creating enough resistance so that they can exercise their muscles. Veterinarians and rehabilitation specialists who know about it consider it a major breakthrough for dogs with problems such as spinal injuries, severe arthritis, hip or elbow dysplasia -- in which joints can become inflamed and eventually arthritic -- or mobility problems.

"We used to have dogs come in here with ruptured disks, fractured spines, dogs that had been the victims of accidents, and it was really frustrating: We didn't know how to rehab these dogs," says Juli Dell'Era, a canine rehabilitation practitioner at the Animal Care Center in Sebastopol, California for 15 years, and the therapist who worked with Shadow. "People hadn't heard of it until a few years ago, but it's gaining credibility fast because it's very effective therapy."

What makes hydrotherapy different is the buoyancy water provides. The feeling of weightlessness allows disabled dogs to use all their muscles without putting stress on damaged or weak muscles. But the water also creates resistance, which limits the rate at which the dog's limbs can move through the water. This resistance means that a five-minute swim is a workout that may be equivalent to running five miles. It's also a great cardiovascular workout for a dog's heart and lungs, since the weight of the water means that breathing requires more effort. The water in hydrotherapy pools is warm (80 to 100 degrees F), which promotes blood flow to the injured area while simultaneously increasingmuscle and joint flexibility. Cold water can cause the blood vessels near the skin and those just beneath it to constrict, reducing blood flow to muscles and making them less efficient.

"Even dogs that are in excruciating pain or have hardly any range of motion can do hydrotherapy and gradually build their strength back up," says Dell'Era. Shadow was a perfect example. So disabled at the beginning of treatment he could walk only with a harness holding up his back legs, Shadow made dramatic progress. Within six weeks he was out of the harness entirely, says Powers, his owner.

British import

Canine hydrotherapy is a relatively new arrival in the United States, where doggie pools and underwater treadmills started springing up only in the past decade or so, most associated with veterinarians or rehabilitation clinics. But it's well known in England, where there are many specialized facilities and even a nonprofit group, the Canine Hydrotherapy Association, to connect members and set standards for treatment. Today there's a Canine Water Therapy division of the International Association of Animal Massage and Body Work in the United States (http://www.iaamb.org).

Therapists say hydrotherapy's benefits are already well established for humans. Why, they say, wouldn't dogs benefit from something that's worked so well for people?

"Doctors and physical therapists have been using hydrotherapy for many years for those with arthritis, spinal cord injuries, strokes, and other serious disabilities," says Trish Penick, who runs Cutting Edge K9 Rehab in San Diego, California. In using similar techniques for canines, she adds, "I've seen dogs that we thought were totally paralyzed get in the water and start swimming. The water makes it possible for them to do things that no one thought they could do."

One of the reasons therapists love hydrotherapy is that the resistance of the water makes the exercise more concentrated. "Thirty minutes in the water is equal to one and a half to two hours of working out with weights on land," Penick says. "It's more concentrated, and yet there's less pain. You see results so much faster."

Gaining popularity among vets and rehabilitation specialists are two types of hydrotherapy, depending on the type of injury or the personal preference of the therapist. In one type, a dog swims in an exercise pool against a current. The other uses an underwater treadmill on which dogs walk against the force of the water. Some therapists contend that underwater treadmills are best for rehabilitating a dog's hips and back legs because they allow the therapist more control over the speed, resistance, and depth of water. Also, dogs can be frightened of swimming; such animals may be more likely to adjust to a treadmill, since their paws can feel the machine, says Dell'Era, who's a treadmill fan. The therapist may also get into the water or onto the treadmill to support the dog as it walks.

The other form of hydrotherapy uses pools with powerful jets that create a current. Some veterinarians, like Penick, believe that swimming against a current gives dogs a more complete body workout and better cardiac conditioning, and is preferable to the minor pressure of walking on the treadmill. Pet owners don't need to worry if their dog isn't a strong swimmer or is nervous around water. Their pets will wear life jackets made for dogs, with handles used to guide them. The therapist helps dogs swim against the current, guiding them so they use the correct muscles and reassuring them so they stay calm during the workout.

From hip displacement to post-surgical treatment

Enthusiasm for water therapy is spreading even among owners of younger dogs with milder problems, such as the early stages of hip and elbow dysplasia, an inflammation of the joints that can eventually lead to arthritis. Owners can preserve their dogs' mobility by letting them work out in water. Veterinarians have also been quick to adopt hydrotherapy as ideal for post-surgical recovery, says Andrew Sams, an orthopedic veterinarian with a practice in Mill Valley, California.

"Hydrotherapy is excellent for dogs that have fractures or need to rebuild muscle but can't tolerate full weight-bearing exercise yet," he says.

Sams says he's also used hydrotherapy with puppies and younger dogs that need an outlet for their physical energy but are supposed to be kept relatively inactive while they recover from surgery.

The number of visits depends on the dog's problem and stamina. If hydrotherapy is recommended for a short-term condition, such as recovering from surgery, it may involve as few as three sessions. For a dog with a chronic illness like arthritis, hydrotherapy might be ongoing. Hydrotherapy should be performed by a veterinarian or therapist who is specially trained in water rehabilitation for dogs. Since veterinary licensing regulations vary from state to state, ask your vet for a referral to a properly credentialed therapist and pool facility.

It's a good idea to inspect the facility before the dog's first session to make sure it's clean and that the people handling your pet are licensed, according to experts. Ask if vaccinations are required, how often the pools are cleaned, and what chemicals are used in the process. The Association of Canine Water Therapy also suggests asking about the business's background and individual therapists' experience working with animals in the pool.

Confidence builder

Deanne, a 12-year-old German shepherd, is one of Sams's most enthusiastic patients, says owner Etta Allen. Deanne spent most of her life as a highly trained guide dog for the blind, but she retired when she started to limp, partly from the strain of the guide harness on her unusually long back and partly from the osteoarthritis and hip problems common among German shepherds.

"She always had a problem with her back and her back legs, and it just started getting worse," says Allen. "But she had done such wonderful service all her life, I wanted to do whatever I could to help her keep as much mobility as possible. I didn't want to wait until she was truly crippled to do something about it."

Think of it as a positive cycle, says Sams. "Hydrotherapy allows the dog to exercise, which releases endorphins and makes him feel better. And the more he exercises, the more he gains strength and builds muscle which will help him feel better in the long run."

Before beginning therapy, Deanne was a slow walker on her daily outings and couldn't go as far, but after four months of treatment she's back to walking as far as she ever did, says Allen.

"She loves working out, and it's changed her whole attitude," she says. "She seems to have gotten a new outlook on life."

References

Interview with Heidi Powers, owner of Shadow, a Weimaraner

Interview with Juli Dell'Era, certified Canine Rehabilitation Practitioner, Animal Care Center, Rohnert Park

Trish Penick, operator of Cutting Edge K9 Rehab in San Diego, California

Etta Allen, owner of Deanne, a female German shepherd and retired guide dog for the blind

Interview with Andrew Sams, a veterinary surgeon at The Sams Clinic in Mill Valley, California

Association of Canine Water Therapy.

Cutting Edge K9 Rehab.

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