Swimming - when and why

Swimming is awesome for dogs (and horses, humans or even the odd cat), amazing even. It has a range of health and fitness benefits, but only in certain circumstances, with limitations, with preparation, and with a thoughtful application. Before we start, it is important to note that swimming is very different to an underwater treadmill and they are not interchangeable. 

Swimming for general fitness and cardiovascular health is wonderful. It is great for maintaining general fitness while your pet has an injury that limits their ability to weight-bear. It's also a great way to have fun in a low impact way. You can play a great game of fetch by throwing the toy into water, particularly for dogs who skid, spin or have had an injury that prevents them running freely. 

However, while there are lots of reasons why swimming shouldn’t be used as part of a rehabilitation or conditioning program. 

Non-weight bearing

When swimming you are targeting muscles that move the body, not muscles that support joints. So often swimming will strengthen the muscles that are already too strong and make balance issues worse. (You can read more about Supporters V Movers here)

No specific control of speed or movement

It is impossible to exactly control the speed and technique of how the dog is moving while swimming. While we can use some techniques to bias the dogs movements and encourage them to move the way we want, there is no way to explain to the dog what we are trying to achieve. I’ve said many times that dogs cheat if given the opportunity and the lack of control over the movement of the dog while swimming gives them ample opportunity to cheat. 

This means its possible to do more harm than good. I would never suggest allowing an injured dog to swim without a human present in the water with them, at any time, for any reason.

It is not functional

The aim of rehabilitation is to return the animal to normal function. At no point while the dog is swimming do we have muscles being used for the same function as they do for every day life. It doesn’t matter how many laps of the pool your dog can do if they can’t get themselves out of their bed when you aren't here to help them. Spending time practicing functional movements is usually a much better use of your time. 

Conditioning is to achieve both safer and improved performance. Once again we aim to mimic the same cycle of muscle movements and brain stimulation that will be used for the sport you chose to do. So swimming for a speed retrieve dog is perfect. For any other sport it does not match up to any movement that we are asking them to perform and so has limited benefit other than for cardiovascular fitness. 

I recommend swimming when dogs have a fracture and need to be rested. They get to burn some energy without repetitive impacts on the bone and they are less likely to develop compensation changes. I also recommend it for obese dogs and where there is significant muscle wastage. But thats about it. I especially do not recommend swimming after cruciate surgery, for elbow dysplasia, soft tissue injuries or any general lameness that does not have a clear diagnosis.

Please only swim your dog if it is completely fit and healthy unless you have a recommendation from someone who has experience or study in rehabilitation (qualifications in hydrotherapy alone do not suffice). You run the very real risk of doing more harm than good. 

If you’d like some advice on whether swimming is right for your dog, please give me a call on 0429 443 314 or send an email to jaime@primalpaws.com

Dr Jaime Jackson