Aquatic Therapy or Hydrotherapy for Pets – The Miracle of Water!

Water therapy dogWhat is aquatic therapy or hydrotherapy?
How can aquatic therapy help dogs and other pets? Aquatic therapy (water therapy) is widely used in rehabilitation programs for humans since the 1700’s.  Its use with animals is fairly recent. There are several research studies that have documented the benefits for dogs that primarily demonstrate significant improvements in joint range of motion. Studies show that dogs benefit from physical therapy and aquatic therapy as a form of rehabilitation for arthritis, injury, or following surgery. The benefits are many for muscle mass, circulation or movement.  A few studies have also been conducted on hydrotherapy with horses.

Origin and History of Aquatic Therapy or Hydrotherapy
Early writings on the medical uses of water with humans were published in the 18th century. Sir John Floyer, a physician of Lichfield,  published a book on the history of cold bathing There were six editions including a German translation, which inspired Dr. J. S. Hahn of Silesia to write On the Healing Virtues of Cold Water, Inwardly and Outwardly Applied, as Proved by Experience in 1738.  Captain R. T. Claridge is considered to be responsible for popularizing hydropathy first in London in 1842. The Turkish bath was introduced by David Urquhart into England on his return from the East in the 1850s, and later adopted by Richard Barter. Joel Shew and R.T Trall established the first water therapy facilities in the United States in the 1840s, followed by Dr Charles Munde in the 1850s. Trall co-edited the Water Cure Journal. John Harvey Kellogg popularized hydrotherapy at the Battle Creek Sanitarium in 1866.

Water therapy dogWhat Research Has Been Conducted on Canine Hydrotherapy?
In a study by Gregory S. Marsolais and other researchers, published in the March 15, 2003 Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association,  13 healthy dogs and 7 dogs with ruptured cranial cruciate ligament were filmed while swimming in a pool and while walking at a fast (1.3 m/s) or slow (0.9 m/s) pace on a treadmill. Results suggested that following surgical management of a ruptured corrected cranial cruciate ligament (CCL) in dogs, swimming resulted in greater range of motion (ROM) of the stifle and tarsal joints than did treadmill walking.

A similar canine hydrotherapy study, “Effects of postoperative rehabilitation on limb function after cranial cruciate ligament repair in dogs” conducted  by Marsolais G., Dvorak G., Conzemius M., showed that after hydrotherapy pelvic limb abilities improved, with no difference in peak vertical force or vertical impulse.  This was measured by a force platform analysis and a comparison between the repaired limb and the contralateral limb at a six-month follow up evaluation.

Hydrotherapy dog

In a study by Jackson and other researchers in 2002, entitled, “Joint kinematics during underwater treadmill activity,” researchers kinematic analysis of dogs walking in an underwater treadmill showed that joint flexion was maximized when the depth of the water is kept above the joint.

Monk, Preston and McGown, concluded in their 2006 research study, “Effects of early intensive postoperative physiotherapy on limb function after tibial plateau leveling osteotomy in dogs with deficiency of the cranial cruciate ligament,” that underwater treadmill exercise improved joint range of motion and increased thigh circumference, compared to the two other control groups of cage rest and controlled walking. Six weeks after surgery, there was no difference in thigh circumference and joint range of motion between the affected and unaffected limbs in the aquatic therapy group. However, the dogs who had received cage rest and the dogs in the controlled walking group demonstrated continued progression in joint stiffness and muscle atrophy.

An incredible video story about Cyrus, a paralyzed dog recovering with dog hydrotherapy. Witness the amazing results of his complete recovery!

Multiple research studies have shown hydrotherapy to be an effective means of rehabilitation for dogs. Physical therapists working with Cyrus, the paralyzed dog in the video above, demonstrated the amazing effects of hydrotherapy on paralysis and complete loss of use. A limited number of studies have also been conducted using aquatic therapy with other animals such as horses. Canine aquatic therapy or  hydrotherapy has been shown to be highly successful for improving ambulation after surgery, or after injury or as a remedy for arthritis stiffness and pain. 

Marsolais G., McLean S., Derrick T., et al. Kinematic analysis of the hindlimb during swimming and walking in healthy dogs and dogs with surgically corrected cranial cruciate ligament rupture. J Am Vet Med Assoc 2003;222:739-743

 Marsolais G., Dvorak G., Conzemius M. Effects of postoperative rehabilitation on limb function after cranial cruciate ligament repair in dogs. J Am Vet Med Assoc 2002;220:1325-1330.

 Jackson A., Millis D., Stevens M., et al. Joint kinematics during underwater treadmill activity. Second International Symposium on Rehabilitation and Physical Therapy in Veterinary Medicine 2002;1:191.

Monk M., Preston C., McGowan C. Effects of early intensive postoperative physiotherapy on limb function after tibial plateau leveling osteotomy in dogs with deficiency of the cranial cruciate ligament. Am J Vet Res 2006;67:529-536.

Underwater treadmill therapy in veterinary practice: Benefits and considerations

The Canine Hydrotherapy Association

Jean E. Dart
This article is written by Jean Voice Dart,  M.S. Special Education from Illinois State University.
 Jean is a published author and has written hundreds of health articles as well as hosting a local television program, “Making Miracles Happen.”  She is a Registered Music Therapist, Sound Therapist, and Master Level Energetic Teacher, and is the Executive Director, founder and Health and Wellness Educator of the Monterey Bay Holistic Alliance.  The Monterey Bay Holistic Alliance is a registered 501 (c) 3  nonprofit health and wellness education organization.  For more information about  the Monterey Bay Holistic Alliance contact us or visit our website at

 Disclaimer:The Monterey Bay Holistic Alliance is a charitable, independent registered nonprofit 501(c)3 organization and does not endorse any particular products or practices. We exist as an educational organization dedicated to providing free access to health education resources, products and services. Claims and statements herein are for informational purposes only and have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. The statements about organizations, practitioners, methods of treatment, and products listed on this website are not meant to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. This information is intended for educational purposes only. The MBHA strongly recommends that you seek out your trusted medical doctor or practitioner for diagnosis and treatment of any existing health condition.

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