Helping pets shed some pounds - hydrotheraphy for obese and injured animals

Labrador cross Alicia being treated for hip displasia an underwater treadmill at Sunbeam Veterinary Hospital, Cork.

Hydrotherapy and pool sessions are being used by vets to treat injuries and obesity, says Nuala Woulfe.

WE ARE becoming a nation of time-pressed fatties desperately trying to shape up at the gym — but now even our dogs are becoming obese and are swimming and working out on special treadmills across the country.

In the last few years, hydrotherapy centres have sprung up around Ireland, where dogs swim in special pools or exercise on hydro treadmills to lose weight. Initially a focus for rehabilitation, or as a means to tone up show dogs and race dogs before competition, Cork-based vet Joe Keane of Sunbeam Veterinary Hospital says they’ve now started using hydrotherapy more for overweight dogs.

“Four years ago we invested in an underwater treadmill as we were looking to the future and hydrotherapy is a good non-invasive therapy post-surgery. Three years ago we started to use the walker as a weight-loss treatment for animals that find it difficult to exercise because they are too large. Hydro therapy takes the pressure off all the joints. Like ourselves, it’s difficult to lose weight just by dieting — it’s better if there is a multi-approach to weight loss,” says Keane.

Excess weight can have many undesirable effects on animals including: diabetes, joint, respiratory and heart problems. In addition, an injured animal who cannot exercise is also prone to weight gain. This is where hydrotherapy can help.

Keane also urges owners to be careful with their dogs’ diets, and warns of canine obesity. “It’s a growing epidemic — it’s now considered a disease in pets. We need to make owners aware of this growing problem. People don’t realise that a slice of buttered toast is the equivalent of a burger to a dog or one biscuit is like a packet.”

Unfortunately, whether an overweight, inactive dog loses weight is down to the owner. Joe says some people are horrified when they’re first told their pet is overweight and will immediately take action, booking in for exercise treatments or buying special diet food, but he accepts that for other people time or cost can be an issue.

Currently Sunbeam gets referrals from vets who, along with owners, are becoming more open minded about exercise as a treatment option and who are sending dogs for massage and exercise at the hydrotherapy unit.

Helping pets shed some pounds - hydrotheraphy for obese and injured animals

Hydrotherapist and veterinary nurse Alison Whelan

Meanwhile, in Kildare, at the Canine Hydrotherapy and Rehabilitation Centre, dogs are learning to swim in an 11x5m heated pool, as well as using a hydro treadmill. “Dogs are becoming couch potatoes like the rest of us,” says owner Mick Murphy whose business has the biggest canine hydro pool in the country. “I’ve seen dogs nearly double the weight they should be — they cannot move. We have reversed obesity in dogs, but it takes discipline, they say a minute of swimming is the same as a mile of walking.”

Novice or nervous swimmers first take to the water in lifejackets, but according to Murphy, it’s not long before pets run happily into the water. After rehabilitation some owners even book their dogs into the pool for ‘social sessions’ where owners can get into the pool and play too. Murphy believes the Irish, “are slowly beginning to cop on” about pet exercise and nutrition but he says owners must resist the urge to overfeed animals when they put on the “sad face”.

Dublin hydrotherapist Gareth Dunne, owner of Sharpwells Canine Hydrotherapy Centre, has also noticed a phenomenon where older people, who may have mobility problems themselves, are booking pets in for a swim session.

“We don’t allow people in the pool but owners can stay poolside, and we’ve toys that can be thrown in for play. Dogs really enjoy swimming,” he says.

At the Veterinary Hospital, UCD, the Animal Rehabilitation Centre (ARC) spokesperson Lynn Cogan says rehabilitation in general is a fairly new concept in veterinary medicine in Ireland but the benefits are now widely recognised.

“Hydrotherapy is gentle on joints but is a tough workout and will burn calories,’ she says.

However, to avoid overweight problems, Cogan urges people, before they buy a dog, to assess if they have time to commit to exercise and what breed best suits their lifestyle as some animals need more activity than others. “Owning a dog is a big commitment and responsibility,” she says.


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