Hydrotherapy is a form of physiotherapy that uses movement and exercise in water to help patients regain or improve their fitness, especially after an illness or injury. Many cat owners would understandably assume their pets would not enjoy being immersed in water on a regular basis and therefore not be candidates for this form of treatment.

Until recently, many vets, nurses and animal physiotherapists might well have agreed. Considering that the stress of the water would far outweigh any physical benefits to the patient. However, it is now becoming clear that with the right introduction and behavioural training many cats can both tolerate and gain real benefit from water-based physical therapy. 

The benefits of hydrotherapy for cats

Being immersed in water provides support to injured limbs while at the same time creating resistance to motion. This combination of properties has many advantages. Most notably, helping to reduce pain associated with movement, reducing muscle spasms, improving mobilisation and flexibility, reducing stress on joints and muscles, improving muscular strength and cardiovascular fitness as well as helping to reduce swelling.

There are a range of conditions that hydrotherapy has been shown to help with including:

  • Arthritis
  • Neurological conditions and spinal injuries
  • Injuries such as fractures or luxations of joints
  • Recovery from orthopaedic surgery
  • Luxating patellae (knee caps that dislocate spontaneously)
  • Cruciate ligament injury
  • Weight loss
  • General fitness

Considerations before hydrotherapy

Before any course of hydrotherapy is started your pet should have a full examination carried out by a veterinary surgeon. This is to rule out any problems that might make hydrotherapy unsuitable as a therapy. Contraindications to this form of treatment include any infections, skin diseases, open or surgical wounds and heart or lung conditions that might affect a pet’s general fitness.

Your veterinary surgeons will also be able to advise on whether hydrotherapy is likely to be of benefit to your cat.

Next, each patient should be assessed by a qualified animal physiotherapist. They will advise on the best course of therapy, as well as discussing behavioural modification techniques to help your cat accept the treatment with minimal stress. It is important to find a knowledgeable therapist with experience specifically undertaking feline hydrotherapy.

Cats should always wear either a harness or well fitting life-jacket for hydrotherapy sessions. It can be helpful to introduce these items first at home where your pet is likely to feel calmer. Cats can either be exercised on a submerged treadmill or in a dedicated pool where they are encouraged to swim across short distances with rest areas at either end. Sessions should be kept short as swimming is physically very tiring. At the end of each session your pet should be gently dried to stop them getting chilled. Regular progress and mobility assessments should be carried out.

Do cats really accept hydrotherapy?

Generally, yes. Certain breeds including Burmese, Siamese, Turkish Van cats and Persians appear more accepting of hydrotherapy in general. However, it is important that stress levels are kept to a minimum from start to finish and this includes the journey to and from the hydrotherapy centre.

Cats should be introduced slowly to the water and this may be done best in their own home initially. Most cats will start with shallow water often on a treadmill. Treadmill speeds should be kept slow to start. Owners should be kept in sight where possible and usually the physiotherapist will be in the pool with the patient.

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Treats can be useful to encourage forward motion and reassure or distract your pet. Take things slowly and give lots of gentle, calm encouragement. With patience and practice your pet will soon be reaping all the rewards and benefits of the hydrotherapy pool. 

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