A dog doing hydrotherapy in a pool.

Hydrotherapy for Dogs and Cats

Does a warm soak and a relaxing stretch sound good to you? How about a cooling spray and an invigorating massage? These are just a couple of benefits that water therapy, aka hydrotherapy, can provide. Hydrotherapy is an important modality of veterinary rehabilitation that can also be used as part of a pet’s overall health plan.

Water therapy can be prescribed for a variety of acute and chronic conditions, as well as just for fitness fun. This article will highlight different types of hydrotherapy utilized in veterinary rehabilitation, as well as ways you can achieve some of the same benefits at home.

Types of Water Therapy

Pool Therapy

A dog doing some vet-guided pool therapy.

When pet parents think of hydrotherapy for their pet, swimming or “pool therapy” often comes to mind. As described, this type of treatment requires either an above-ground or in-ground pool. Usually, pools at treatment centers are not as deep as a traditional swimming pool, which allows the therapist to stand in the pool next to the patient and provide aid if necessary.

Hydrotherapy performed in a pool has the advantage of zero ground force, which is particularly beneficial for older pets with sore joints and difficulty walking. In many cases, the pet wears a life jacket to aid in buoyancy and to decrease the work needed to stay afloat. Pool swimming is beneficial for active range of motion, especially on the front legs (think “doggy paddle”), but the rear legs will need a more comprehensive workout (see the “underwater treadmill” below) to fully benefit. If fitness for weight loss or gentle water therapy is the primary goal, then the pool is a good candidate for low-impact exercise and soothing water massage.

Underwater Treadmill

Underwater treadmill therapy is another common form of water therapy that has a multitude of benefits. Much like the pool, the hydrostatic pressure from being surrounded by water creates a massage-like effect, helping to reduce swelling, decrease arthritis pain, and improve circulation. Unlike the pool, the treadmill has many additional benefits.

The act of walking on the moving treadmill surface helps with a pet’s gait by training that motion and making a repeated mind-body connection to paw placement and the ground beneath. This connection is especially important to pets who have suffered neurological injury (such as disc herniation) or had a surgical procedure (such as cruciate ligament repair). The speed of the treadmill can be adjusted, as well as the depth of the water.

Similar to the pool, buoyancy from the water takes much of the ground reaction force off of the joints, however, there are still ground forces in effect dependent upon the water’s depth. The amount of ground force is inversely related to the depth of the water in the treadmill; the higher the water level, the lower the ground force.

Additionally, the deeper the water the greater the resistance to movement, thus requiring greater effort by the patient. If you have ever walked in thigh high water, you can certainly attest to this! Other variables that can be changed in the underwater treadmill are the angle of incline (more incline = more work for the rear legs), the direction of the treadmill belt, the addition of propulsive jets (which can provide a vigorous whirlpool massage effect), and added resistance, if the pet is walking against the jets’ force.


While it is far more common to see a therapy pool or underwater treadmill at a veterinary rehabilitation facility, a few referral centers do have whirlpool availability. This is more passively therapeutic, as the whirling water provides turbulence that helps by decreasing swelling, increasing circulation, and decreasing pain.

It is possible for your pet to derive some benefit through “home hydrotherapy,” depending on your pet’s size and your access to water. For example, if you have access to an outdoor pool, lake, or pond, you can swim your dog (if they are amenable). Though many dogs know how to swim, it is not necessarily a natural talent.

If you are going to try home water therapy for your pet, I would recommend purchasing a pet life jacket, because even if your pup knows how to swim, it provides buoyancy and allows for more control of a pet’s movement. If you have a smaller pet like a cat or Chihuahua, your bathtub can be used for hydrotherapy, either as a makeshift underwater treadmill (by coaxing your pet to walk) or as a hydro-massage bath. Remember, never leave your pet unattended and always make sure you have control over your pet and consider your own safety.

Whether seeking help from a rehabilitation facility or trying your own hydrotherapy, there are certain precautions that must be taken into consideration.

Reasons to Avoid Hydrotherapy

Underlying Disease

If your pet has certain health conditions such as a heart disease, respiratory disease (pneumonia, asthma, laryngeal paralysis), or any other disease affecting their ability to breathe or exercise, hydrotherapy may not be the best idea. If serious underlying conditions exist, water therapy should be done with extreme caution under the direct supervision of a trained individual to prevent potentially fatal accidents.

Open Wounds or Incisions

If your pet has an open wound or has recently had surgery and the incision has not fully healed, it is best to wait to do hydrotherapy, as it is imperative that wounds are closed to prevent infection.

Diarrhea/Loss of Bowel Control

It goes without saying that diarrhea or loss of bowel control would be a contraindication to water therapy. Though accidents occasionally happen, it’s a big deal, requiring the cessation of all patient hydrotherapy treatment for several hours.

Hydrotherapy can provide many benefits, including gait training, aqua-massage, and low-impact exercise to name a few. If the appropriate precautions are taken, it can help pets healing from orthopedic surgery, dealing with neurological disease, obesity, arthritis, or even winter boredom. Prior to starting any water therapy program, make sure you have your fur baby thoroughly assessed by your veterinarian to see if hydrotherapy would be beneficial.