The Weight Of Water And How It Helps Dogs

 by Susan E. Davis, PT

The Weight of Water, by Anita Shreve, is one of my favorite books. It’s the kind of book I can read over and over again. It combines all of my favorite things:  history, suspense, relationships, islands, sailboats, and water. I love water, being near it, on it, in it, and as a physical therapist using it for therapy and rehabilitation.

Water has unique properties which make it a wonderful exercise medium for canine patients and most dogs love it as much as I do!

Photo Theron LaBounty

Aquatic therapy, also called “hydrotherapy”, using pools, has become very popular in the canine rehabilitation field over the past 8-10 years.

Water offers warmth, buoyancy and resistance.  

Water is a relaxing and supportive medium in which to move and strengthen weakened muscles, especially if multiple parts of the animal’s body have been injured or affected by a medical condition. In addition to pools, aquatic exercise can take place in whirlpools, bathtubs, lakes, ponds, streams and underwater treadmills.

The benefits of water exercise and swimming include:
  1. Hydrostatic pressure of water helps support balance and weak limbs so that a dog can move without falling

  2. Buoyancy, or upward thrust of water, takes pressure off of sore painful joints affected by arthritis or healing from fracture

  3. Cohesion, or the binding force of water molecules adhering to each other, provides resistance for strengthening. When the body moves through water, force is required to separate the molecules..

  4. Conductivity, having a high specific heat and temperature conductivity so that water is able to heat or cool the body core rapidly.
Your Veterinarian should always be consulted prior to starting any swim or aquatic program, whether related to medical or recreational purposes. Although the benefits are great, you should be aware of precautions and contraindications when considering aquatic therapy for your dog:
  1. If surgery has taken place, incisions should be closed, sealed and dry prior to any water applications, in order to prevent infection or the possible spread of bacteria.  Incisions may not be fully healed internally yet, but as long as they are considered “sealed” by a veterinarian, therapist or pool manager, it should be safe to swim. 
  2. Some canine breeds may be frightened of the water and could become agitated, thrash about and potentially harm themselves. These animals should be identified and not subjected to swimming or aquatic therapy.
  3. Pool activity should be supervised at all times.
  4. Diarrhea, bowel and bladder incontinence, bleeding, vascular disease, heart or lung conditions are contraindications.
  5. Medical or health conditions that can be negatively affected by heat and humidity should be contraindications to aquatic therapy.
  6. Laryngeal paralysis with tie-back surgery is an absolute contraindicated for swimming.  Dogs are not permitted to swim as the larynx would be unable to close if the head submerged under water and drowning could occur. 
Now, here are some general guidelines to consider when choosing a swim facility for your dog:
  1. The water temperature should be between 75-80 degrees in the winter months.
  2. Chemical levels should be measured and balanced daily.  Skimmers must be cleaned several times a day and the pool should be vacuumed and back washed as needed.
  3. Staff members should be familiar with basic anatomy and medical conditions of dogs and always be present
  4. Dogs should be required to wear life vests.  Leads may be attached to the life vest to provide assistance and control for the swim.
  5. The facility must be open and willing to collaborate with your veterinarian and physical therapist.
  6. The pool should have a ramp with treads and side walls to allow the dog to walk easily into the pool, or a mechanical lift
  7. Bathing stations should be provided if the pool is chlorinated, along with a place to dry the dog, especially during the cold months.
Swim programs vary from dog to dog.

It is very important to start with a smaller amount of swimming (10-15 minutes), erring on the side of caution, especially with the first visit or 2. Afterward, you can expect a dog to show some fatigue for a few hours, but they should not be exhausted for a whole day.

The second swim is longer, adding 5 minutes, and gradually working up to 30 minutes.  You and the staff should be observant for special parts of the swim that seem challenging: for example, a dog that has had cruciate surgery usually has trouble making turns in the pool initially. Balls, floating noodles, toys and verbal cues can be used to assist them in making turns.

Another form of canine hydrotherapy is the underwater treadmill, enclosed and self-contained units that allow a dog to walk partially submerged in water. 

These units are usually found in specialty veterinarian hospitals that have rehabilitation facilities as well as in physical therapy offices that specialize in animals. Other than sharing the physical medium of water, underwater treadmill walking offers a very different form of exercise from swimming.

The units have controls that alter the treadmill speed, depth and temperature of water. Resistance from the water can be increased by adjusting to a higher speed of the treadmill, as well as the use of air jets. The ability to make all of these adjustments allows a therapist systematic control and reproduction of the exercise parameters, and objective measurements of the dog’s progress.

I will provide more information on underwater treadmill exercise and compare it to land treadmill walking in a future article.  Stay tuned!


Susan E. Davis (Sue) is a licensed Physical Therapist with over 30 years of practice in the human field, who transitioned into the animal world after taking courses at the UT Canine Rehabilitation program.  She is located in Red Bank, New Jersey.

She has been providing PT services to dogs and other animals through her entity Joycare Onsite, LLC in pet’s homes and in vet clinics since 2008.

She also provides pro bono services at the Monmouth County SPCA in Eatontown, NJ.  Sue is the proud “dog mommy” to Penelope, a miniature Dachshund with “attitude”.  For more information see her website , or follow on Twitter @animalPTsue.

Sue is also the author of a fantastic book on physical therapy, Physical Therapy And Rehabilitation For Animals: A Guide For The Consumer.  

Physical therapy can do so many great things for your dog. Understanding all the possibilities physical therapy can offer will change your dog's life. This book definitely belongs on the shelf of every dog lover.

Articles by Susan E. Davis:
Functional Strengthening Exercises: the What, Why and How
One Thing Leads To Another: Why The Second ACL Often Goes Too
Compensation: An Attempt To Restore Harmony
Paring Down to the Canine Core
Canine Massage: Every Dog ‘Kneads’ It”
Photon Power: Can Laser Therapy Help Your Dog?  
Physical Therapy in the Veterinary World  
Reiki: Is it real? 
Dog Lessons: Cooper  
The Essentials Of Canine Injury Prevention: 7 Tips For Keeping Your Dog Safer 
It's Not Just Walking, It's Therapy! 
Treatment And Prevention Of Canine Intervertebral Disc Disease (Part I)
Treatment And Prevention Of Canine Intervertebral Disc Disease (Part II Physical Therapy)
Range Of Motion: It’s A Matter Of Degree…
The Weight Of Water And How It Helps Dogs 
By Land or By Sea? A Comparison of Canine Treadmills 
Unraveling The Mystery Of Fascia And Myofascial Trigger Points (Part I)
Unraveling The Mystery Of Fascia And Myofascial Trigger Points (Part II) 
Scar Tissue: Is it Too Much of a Good Thing? 
Physical Therapy Tip Of The Month: Ramps! 
Physical Therapy Tip Of The Month: Indoor Duo Dog Exercises!
Physical Therapy Tip Of The Month: Best Practices After Your Dog’s Surgery

Further reading:
Underwater treadmill therapy in veterinary practice: Benefits and considerations
Canine Hydrotherapy

Related articles:
Let There Be Water: Jasmine's Underwater Treadmill Session


  1. Great informative post! I will definitely share it with my clients..thanks!

  2. We're looking forward to getting more in depth with hydrotherapy in the coming months. Out specialist recommended we take Felix for some water therapy once his ACL is ready to be worked a bit. We're lucky to have a great facility near our house that meets all the criteria outlined. Thanks for sharing all this!

    1. Yes, hydrotherapy is awesome for post-op rehabilitation, it'll be great for Felix once the initial inflammation goes down and the incision is safe to get wet.

      You ARE lucky that you have one near, we had to travel quite a ways, until one of the local hospitals got one as well.

  3. Yes, I heard that hydrotherapy is a good treatment for dogs rehabilitation. Dogs love to swim and this can be a good treatment. Thank you for sharing this information.

  4. Hydrotherapy is great. Jasmine was getting underwater treadmill treatments and they did a lot of good for her.

  5. Great post - we love water therapy and have used it for all of our dogs so far as they got older. It's so good for them. (love that book too!)


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