How physiotherapy and hydrotherapy can help your dog have a long and healthy career

Dog’s make incredible athletes and the variety of sports and activities that they perform in is awe inspiring. Because of their muscle fibre make up, they are cardiovascular machines! But unfortunately, they are not real machines, and therefore just as with human athletes, they can succumb to injuries. This is where veterinary physiotherapy and hydrotherapy come into play. Through utilising these within the training and maintenance of your canine athlete, you can be sure that they are able to achieve their full potential whilst enjoying a long and healthy working and sporting career. This blog will go into detail of the different areas that these therapies can help with.

Popular canine sports

There is such a huge variety of canine sports that require very different demands from a dog. Certain breeds and individuals will have conformation and genetics that make them ideal for competing at the highest level of particular sports but that doesn’t stop any one dog from trying out any of these activities. In healthy dogs, they can be great ways to keep fit.

Here are some of the most common canine sports that are out there:

· Agility

· Obedience

· Flyball

· Dock diving

· Greyhound racing

· Herding

· Field/ hunt trials

· Sled dogs

But there are many, many more. Visit the kennel club website to see if there are any local clubs to you.

Strength and conditioning

Whether your dog is a working gun dog or loves to compete in agility competitions, they must be strong and fit enough to withstand the physical demands of what they are being asked to do. Seeing a qualified and experienced veterinary physiotherapist or sports medicine vet can help provide you with an exercise plan that can help condition them for their specific sports as well as pick up on any areas of potential weakness to work on. For example, this could include improving the power from the back legs, spinal mobility, and shoulder stability for an agility dog, or for hunting dogs this may include their endurance to work for hours on end and the ability to move well over different terrain.

Hydrotherapy such as swimming or moving in the underwater treadmill with a qualified hydrotherapist, are excellent ways of improving your dog’s cardiovascular fitness with limited impact on their joints. An incline underwater treadmill can also be a great form of strength training.

How do you know if your dog is fit enough to compete?

This is a difficult question to answer. Many practitioners may have their own assessment tools and criteria for participating in sport and unfortunately there is no standardised way to do this. However, The University of Pennsylvania (PennVet) have developed a foundational fitness assessment and “Fit to Work” programme to begin to develop a standardised way of assessing a dog’s ability to compete or work as well as what areas may require improvement.

Research like this is a great way to move the industry forwards and develop a standard way of assessing a dog’s ability to perform at a high level, whether they are coming back from injury or looking to get the most from their performance. However, because this is not yet standard practice in every centre around the world, you may not get this from every therapist you see, but they may have their own version of it. Testing for a dogs ability to return to sport after an injury is slightly different, depending on the injury they have sustained. We discuss this further below.

Photo credit: Houston PetTalk

Injury detection

As a species, dogs are generally stoic and are very good at hiding subtle injuries. However, early detection of injuries is very important because, if left untreated, small injuries can develop into much more serious ones that will require more time off to heal and potentially more invasive treatment. Additionally, if your dog is carrying several minor injuries, this could impede their performance.

Having regular sports medicine check ups help to detect subtle injuries through thorough physical assessment. Bringing footage of you dog competing to these appointments is very beneficial as dogs will change how they move during their sport that can indicate an injury.

Common injuries

Although there are many different sports that require very different movements, there are some common injuries that can occur, often for different reasons though. Certain sports will have a higher risk of certain injuries for the dogs taking part and you should be aware of these if you’re dog is undergoing a particular sport.

Here is a list of some common injuries associated with athletic dogs:

· Biceps brachii tendinopathies (biceps tendon injury).

· Supraspinatus tendinopathies (tendon injury of one of the rotator cuff muscles, although not generally referred to as a rotator cuff in dogs).

· Infraspinatus contracture (painful shortening of one of the rotator cuff muscles).

· Medial shoulder instability (partial or full rupture of the soft tissue structures on the side of the shoulder closest to the rib cage).

· Iliopsoas strains/tendinopathies (strain of one of the deep groin muscles, often injured as a result of overuse due to a different injury).

· Gracilis contracture (shortening of one of the muscles on the inside of the thigh).

This is why having regular sports performance assessments are so important, to make sure that injuries like these are picked up quickly so that your dog does not have to compete whilst in pain and so they will hopefully not have to have as long of a lay off. Although, some of these injuries can take months to rehab depending on the severity.

Additionally, these injuries are often associated more with long term “wear and tear” but other injuries that may not develop until the dog is older include things like osteoarthritis and lumbosacral disease.

Physiotherapy can help to treat these injuries through massage and stretching, thermal therapies like ice and heat, electrotherapies like laser therapy or pulsed electromagnetic field therapy, and remedial exercises to get the animal back to physical fitness.

Starting a return to sport programme after an injury, usually only begins after the initial rehab period has successfully finished and the dog is back to "normal". By this stage, the dog will likely be lacking some strength and fitness for their sport and will require specific exercises and retraining to get back to sporting fitness. Similar to the fit to work testing mentioned earlier, it can be useful to have some form of return to sport tests to be confident that the dog can return without risking exacerbating their injury. This is commonly done in human sports medicine and many people working in canine sports medicine have developed protocols for dogs too. As an example, after a TPLO surgery for cruciate rupture, we can look at muscle symmetry, joint comfort and range of motion, weight bearing symmetry, and ability to perform sports related activities without an increase in lameness.

Photo credit: PetGuide

Injury prevention

As with human athletes, when dogs are competing or working, it is almost impossible to truly prevent any injury from happening. However, there are steps you can take to help reduce the risk of injuries occurring and therefore hopefully also the frequency at which they occur.

Utilising a programme including specific exercises and movements to effectively warm up and cool down your dog can help to prepare the dogs muscles and joints for the type of exercise they are about to undertake, which will in-turn help to reduce the risk of injury and get the best performance out of them. Many dogs have areas of weaknesses that, if ignored, will mean that as they perform they will go through movements that they are not physically strong enough to handle, which can result in injury.

Being properly conditioned for a specific sport is also going to help prevent any fatigue related injury. If a dog becomes fatigued due to not being fit enough for their sport, their movement can become sloppy, which increases the chance of injury. Additionally, forcing your dog to work through fatigue/exhaustion can lead to injuries whilst training. A qualified therapist can help you notice signs of fatigue in your dog.

Photo credit: HomeoAnimal

By addressing these areas with the help of a qualified veterinary physiotherapist, you can be sure your dog is able to achieve their full potential whilst enjoying a long and healthy working and sporting career.

If you are considering starting a new sport with your dog or perhaps your thinking of changing sport, get in touch with your local physiotherapist to see what changes need to be made to their training programmes to make sure they are properly conditioned before they begin to take part.

All the best,


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