Hydrotherapy for dogs: What is it & does it help?

24 August 2023 - 5 min read
dog hydrotherapy
dog hydrotherapy

Canine hydrotherapy uses water resistance to support your dog’s weight while they work through exercises with an animal hydrotherapist.

It’s one of a range of complementary therapies available for dogs and is a form of physiotherapy.

What is Hydrotherapy?

Hydrotherapy is a specialised form of rehabilitation and exercise that utilises non-weight-bearing exercise supported by water. 

It involves controlled movements in the water to aid in the recovery, conditioning, and overall fitness of canines. Hydrotherapy is particularly beneficial for dogs recovering from injuries, surgery, or suffering from conditions that affect mobility.

It provides low-impact activity that reduces stress on joints, muscles, and bones. The buoyancy of water supports the dog's body weight, alleviating pressure on painful or weakened areas. 

Moreover, the water provides gentle resistance, helping to enhance muscle strength and promote cardiovascular fitness without causing strain.

It is generally classified as a complementary therapy - which means that it’s not traditionally carried out by your vet, though some specialist vet facilities do run their own rehabilitation services that include hydrotherapy. However, most hydrotherapy locations require a referral from your veterinarian for your dog to take part in any sessions.

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How do I find a canine hydrotherapist near me?

To access hydrotherapy that helps your dog recover from an illness or injury, can often be easiest to go through your vet. 

Hydrotherapy is classed as a form of musculoskeletal therapy which means it doesn’t need to be carried out by a vet, but your vet does need to have diagnosed your dog and referred them for hydrotherapy sessions.

If you contact the canine hydrotherapy centre yourself, they should give you a referral form that your vet will need to fill in before your dog can have treatment. You should also check that the centre is accredited by either the Canine Hydrotherapy Association (CHA) or National Association of Registered Canine Hydrotherapists (NARCH).

A veterinary referral may NOT be needed for exercise and training sessions or ‘fitness swims’ in the pool that aren’t to treat an illness or injury.

What can canine hydrotherapy help with?

Animal hydrotherapy can help with:

Types of dog hydrotherapy

There are three main types of hydrotherapy that could help your dog with their recovery or fitness:

Underwater treadmill session

This uses a dog hydrotherapy treadmill which is submerged partially in water inside a glass box. The height of the water comes up to the top of your dog’s legs.

This therapy may suit pooches with osteoarthritis, those recovering from orthopaedic surgery, or managing a neurologic disease - like degenerative myelopathy.

It gives your dog a low-impact workout by having them walk against the resistance of the water, but without stress and weight on their joints.

This helps build up muscle strength while the warm water helps with pain and stiffness.

There are some additional benefits to underwater treadmill sessions - which include:

  • A fuller extension of limbs or joints 

  • Control how fast the dog moves

  • Control of how much weight the dog bears as they are moving

  • Being less intimidating than swimming for dogs who are fearful of water 

There are some circumstances where this might not be right for your dog. For example, some pups find the moving belt to be anxiety inducing; other senior or neurologically challenged dogs may struggle with the coordination needed.

Pool session

For pool sessions your dog will work with a trained hydrotherapist in the pool. The water is kept at a comfortable temperature to help ease any pain and stiffness.

This option is once again a great option for those pups struggling with osteoarthritis, those suffering with front limb nerve injuries, or those who are focusing on rebuilding full body strength.

Your dog may need to wear a buoyancy aid and the therapist will guide them through exercises in the water.

The therapist will tailor the session to your dog's needs and can adjust the exercises to suit. Duration of canine hydrotherapy sessions can vary, but are usually about 20-40 minutes long.

Some of the other benefits of pool sessions include:

  • Greater flexion of the joints than with treadmill walking

  • Rendering the dog completely non-weight bearing, removing all concussive forces on joints

  • Improving cardiovascular endurance

The main drawback of pool sessions comes down to a pet’s overall stamina and fitness ability - some older dogs might struggle to build up the energy needed for a successful session.

Fitness swim

Whilst not a type of pure hydrotherapy, a fitness swim similarly involves using water to facilitate exercise and movement.

You shouldn’t need a referral for a fitness swim session as it doesn’t involve any physiotherapy and doesn’t require any veterinary referral. For this, your dog just gets to have a good workout in a heated pool.

Some pools will even let you get in with your dog.

Fitness swim sessions are typically a lot cheaper than a hydrotherapy session because you don’t need a qualified canine hydrotherapist there. You also don’t need a referral from your vet as your pet isn’t receiving treatment.

How much does hydrotherapy for dogs cost?

In July 2022 we checked the prices of 20 canine hydrotherapy centres around the UK and the average cost of a session was £36.28.

The cheapest canine hydrotherapy sessions were £30 and quite a few of the centres charged this. The most expensive hydrotherapy sessions we found were £50 at centres in Cheshire and East Sussex.

Most pet hydrotherapy centres ask that you also have an introductory session which is an in-depth assessment lasting about an hour.

Although one centre charged just £12.50 for an assessment, most were around £40-60 and the most expensive was £70. The average price of an introductory assessment for hydrotherapy was £47.91.

Lots of centres also offer a discount if you book a dog hydrotherapy course of several sessions, for example 10% off a course of 10 sessions.

Are there any other charges?

You should take your dog for a walk before their hydrotherapy session and encourage them to empty their bowels. If they poo in the pool, there’s usually a hefty cleaning charge!

Some centres offer some optional extras like having your dog shampooed and blow dried afterwards – you can expect to pay £10-20 for this.

Can pet insurance pay for hydrotherapy for dogs?

Your ManyPets pet insurance policy includes cover for complementary therapies and that includes hydrotherapy.

There’s a separate vet fee limit for complementary therapies between £500-£2,500 and this limit is a part of your overall annual vet fee limit.

All our policies are lifetime cover, so if your dog needs ongoing hydrotherapy year after year, this limit will refresh each year when you renew.

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Can cats have hydrotherapy?

Although hydrotherapy is more commonly recommended for dogs, it can also be used by cats in some circumstances - though truthfully quite rarely.

Again, you’ll need a referral from your vet before you take your cat to a pool.

Although cats can benefit from hydrotherapy in the same way as dogs, the problem is that these advantages might be outweighed by the water stressing them out. You’ll find that this is not a successful method of therapy for the majority of feline patients solely because of this reason.

Cats will need to wear a buoyancy aid for hydrotherapy and some will accept it more readily than others. You and your vet will need to weigh up how your cat reacts and whether the benefits outweigh any stress.

Derri Dunn
Content marketer

Derri is a personal finance and insurance writer and editor. After seven years covering all things motoring and banking at GoCompare, Derri joined ManyPets in 2021 to focus on pet health. She has fostered cats and kittens for Blue Cross and Cats Protection and is owned by tabby cat Diggory and two badly behaved dogs.