Pancho, a five year old male Collie who had lameness and stiffness caused by arthritis of the hips

Pancho was rescued by Maria two years ago. He was a normal, fit, healthy collie at first, but a few months ago, Maria noticed that he was not quite right after long walks.  He was having difficulty getting up after lying down, he was stiff after exercise, and sometimes he was lame on one of his back legs.

When I examined Pancho, the first thing that was obvious was that his hip joints were painful. When I moved each hind leg backwards and forwards at the hip, he yelped, and turned around anxiously to look at me. I could also see that there was also some muscle atrophy of his hind limbs, suggesting that he had not been using his hind legs properly for some time. X-ray pictures were taken of his hip joints, and these showed that he had a condition called “hip dysplasia.” This happens when the hip joints do not form properly in a young dog. The hip socket is too shallow, and the top of the thigh bone does not slot into the hip as snugly and smoothly as it should do. Hip dysplasia causes gradual, progressive changes to the hip joints, and leads to the development of arthritis at a relatively early stage in the dog’s life.  The x-rays showed that Pancho only had mild signs of arthritic changes in his hips, but it was very likely that arthritis would get progressively worse as he grew older.

A treatment plan for Pancho was put into place. This involved the standard treatment for arthritis, including pain relief, and medications to improve the health of his hip joints. In addition, Pancho was signed up for a new form of treatment that has only recently become available for dogs in Ireland: hydrotherapy. Hydrotherapy is based on the principle of carrying out therapeutic exercises in warm water.  It has been used as part of rehabilitation programmes for humans for many years. It has also been used to help racehorses to recover from sports injuries. Dogs are the latest group of patients to be introduced to hydrotherapy, and the results have been very encouraging.

Vets have known for a long time that swimming is good exercise for animals with joint problems. A dog’s natural buoyancy supports the weight of the body, allowing strenuous, muscle-building exercise without over-stressing the joints. Up until now, swimming was only possible in ways that could be found by individual owners. A dog might swim in the sea, or in a local river. Exceptionally, an owner might have had access to some type of human swimming pool that could be used for their pet.

Hydrotherapy is a novel and effective way for dogs to exercise

In the summer of 2006, a new type of exercise in water became available to dogs in Ireland. The Veterinary Hospital at University College Dublin established a dedicated “Hydrotherapy and Mobility Clinic”, which includes an aquatic treadmill to allow dogs to be offered this novel type of treatment.

The treadmill is the first of its kind in the Republic of Ireland. It is a large stainless steel tank with side viewing panels, and two ends that fold down to form entry and exit ramps.  The floor of the hydrotherapy unit is a treadmill that can be programmed to move at adjustable speeds of up to 8mph (12.8kph).  It is a bit like a jogging machine at the gym, inside a large, reinforced fish tank. The water is pumped into the treadmill from a large stainless steel storage tank where it is sanitised, filtered and heated.  The temperature is kept between 25-30c, and the water quality is regularly monitored.

The Mobility Clinic is run by is Lynn Cogan, who is a qualified human Physical Therapist and a veterinary nurse. Lynn has developed a special interest in the physical therapy of animals, and she has spent time training as a canine hydrotherapist in the United Kingdom. She only treats patients that are referred to her from vets in practice, but she is kept very busy. She devises individual treatment plans for each patient, depending on their condition, history and capabilities.

There are many uses for hydrotherapy. If you imagine the type of human patients who need to visit specialised rehabilitation units, a similar group of canine patients are seen by Lynn. There are many dogs, like Pancho, who are having treatment for joint problems. There are other dogs who have specific muscle and tendon injuries. There are patients who are rehabilitating after serious injuries or major operations. And there are some very old animals who are just unable to manage normal exercise on land.

Hydrotherapy allows exercise in a very controlled way, letting the muscles work whilst the body weight is supported by water. This is an excellent way of building muscle strength and endurance. There are a range of beneficial effects, including pain relief and improved range of movement of the joints. The exercise also improves cardiovascular fitness, and it can be included as part of a weight loss programme in some cases.

Pancho was referred to Lynn for an assessment. She recommended hydrotherapy to build and strengthen the muscles of his hind limbs, to support his hip joints and to improve the range of movement in his hips.  He now has aquatic treadmill sessions at least once weekly. Pancho’s hips have improved significantly since he started, and as an added bonus, he thoroughly enjoys his trips to the treadmill.


  • Exercise in water can be very helpful for dogs with muscle and joint problems
  • Hydrotherapy using an underwater treadmill is a safe, controlled treatment option
  • If your pet needs this type of treatment, a direct referral needs to be made through your own vet

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Please note that I am unable to answer veterinary questions in comments. If you have questions or concerns about your pet's health it is always better to contact your vet.

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