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The Benefits of Hydrotherapy

By: Hsin-Yi Cohen BSc, MA, MSt - Updated: 2 Oct 2012 | comments*Discuss
Canine Hydrotherapy Water Therapy

Hydrotherapy has long been used in the successful rehabilitation and conditioning of animals like racehorses and racing greyhounds, as well as the treatment and rehabilitation of humans. Given its success, it is no surprise that it is now rapidly gaining widespread use for all types of dogs, including pets, and is being used to not only treat injuries and chronic mobility problems but even just to promote general health and fitness.

A history of healing

Hydrotherapy has long held a record of being very effective and successful in treating several types of conditions. For example, in human physiotherapy, research has shown that hydrotherapy treatment encourages the full range of joint motion in ‘reduced-weight conditions’ which means that muscle tone is improved and tissues repaired, without any undue stress being placed on damaged tissues.

With animals, hydrotherapy has long been used in the veterinary field for therapeutic purposes – the water acts as a medium for applying mechanical energy to the tissues of the body, as well as generating a pressure effect. This is particularly effective in helping pain caused by injuries in dogs, because hydrotherapy helps to reduce the swelling in the affected area and improve the blood circulation, in both chronic and acute conditions.

Hydrotherapy for injuries & post-surgery recovery

Gentle, controlled exercise in warm water is ideal for ligament injuries, muscle injuries and other types of soft tissue injury. It also helps in general convalescence - speeding up healing and recovery, and helping to regain normal mobility after surgery. In fact, research shows that hydrotherapy in conjunction with veterinary treatment can significantly improve the rate and quality of healing, following a traumatic injury or even surgery.

In both cases, the warm water increases blood circulation in the muscles, thus leading to an increase in oxygen and nutrients, as well as in the efficiency and speed with which waste products are flushed away. All of this leads to muscle relaxation and reduced pain and stiffness. The improved circulation will also reduce swelling around an injured area, providing an anti-inflammatory effect which helps in the process of healing.

Hydrotherapy also provides a safe way to regain muscle tone. Even within 3 days of immobilisation, muscle wastage can start to occur, often leading to further weakness or injury. Therefore it is essential to rebuild the muscles as soon as possible but to do this through safe exercise. Swimming is the ideal way to do this as it tones most of the major muscle groups. Movement through water is much harder due to the greater resistance of water – this means that any water-based exercises require 30% more oxygen than a similarly-based land exercise. Meanwhile, however, any limb movements against the resistance of water remain pain-free, thus enabling muscle bulk to develop.

Hydrotherapy for chronic conditions

Aside from specific injuries and post-surgical rehabilitation, hydrotherapy can also be used very successfully in the treatment of chronic orthopaedic conditions and arthritis. The hydrostatic pressure applied by the pressure of the water provides a natural anti-inflammatory effect because it forces oedemas or body fluids away from affected areas, thus reducing swelling. This is aided by the movement and exercise of the limbs, which boots circulation.

In many cases, dogs with such chronic conditions often lose their range of movement due to stiffness and pain – and this leads to a vicious cycle of further stiffness, pain and immobility due to muscle wastage and swelling. When in the water, however, the dog will have an increased range of movement again, due to the reduced pain and swelling – thus enabling him to exercise his muscles and ligaments and break the vicious cycle.

The water’s buoyancy also means that there is reduced stress on the weigh-bearing joints, which again reduces the pain and enables easier movement and exercise. Stiff joints are able to move in the buoyancy of water to achieve a bigger range of movement, with minimal additional pain.

Hydrotherapy for general fitness

Hydrotherapy is not just for sick or injured dogs. Swimming in general is a very good form of exercise because almost all the muscles normally used in movement on land are involved but in such a way that there are no stressed by impact on hard ground. Swimming also helps to improve a dog’s general fitness and its cardiovascular stamina, as well as improving muscle tone. It is especially helpful for dogs who suffer from obesity and have problems easing into an exercise regime due to muscle wastage and cardiovascular de-conditioning.

Of course, all this can be achieved through “normal swimming” in a lake or river – however, there are certain benefits to swimming warm water as cold water causes constriction of blood vessels near the surface of the skin and also in the superficial muscles, which then makes these muscles less efficient. Besides, many dogs who are reluctant to take a dip in a cold lake happily enjoy paddling around in warm water!

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