Obesity in Canine Hydrotherapy

Feb 9, 2023 | Hydrotherapy for Animals, Small Animal Rehabilitation

One of the most common conditions we treat as hydrotherapists is obesity, which impacts the quality of life and is often a cause or exacerbating factor for a whole host of conditions, including osteoarthritis.

We face challenges when presented with overweight patients, not least of which is owners, who can be fiercely protective of their dogs’ comfort at the expense of their health.  Swimming obese dogs can be risky, especially in the presence of concurrent conditions. Additionally, we need to be aware of the changes that occur biomechanically for these dogs both in and out of the water.


The Loving Owner of an Obese Pet

During a live interview in our Hydro Vetrehabbers Facebook Community, the issue of owner attitude toward a pet’s obesity was identified as one of the biggest hurdles we face in trying to help these dogs.  It is no small task trying to convince an owner that a) their dog is overweight and b) their dog’s obesity is a serious threat to its health.

Weight is always a delicate matter – made more so when the overweight dog comes with an overweight owner, as is quite often the case! Not always, of course, but it happens. How do we broach this often sensitive but very serious subject?


Recognising obesity as a health threat

We have to get owners to accept that the condition is not so much a matter of aesthetics as of health and lifespan. Our first task is to get them to believe that the problem really is a problem and that it is worth the effort and energy to change their lifestyle in order to bring down their pet’s weight.  This can be slightly easier if there are concurrent diseases or conditions such as osteoarthritis because we can simply express that weight loss is a non-negotiable for effective management of their pet’s health.

Many loving owners see their dog as a part of the family, sharing family life and family food with them on a daily basis. We don’t want to discourage that warm and inclusive view of a family pet; we do want to help owners differentiate between what makes a dog happy in the short term and what makes it happy in the long term – which is good health, a lithe, energetic body, and lots of exercise!


Clear and effective communication

Ultimately, dealing with the management of weight comes down to excellent, empathetic and clear communication. No one wants to be told bluntly, “Your dog is grossly overweight – do something about it!” Try that and see how far it gets you. Approach the subject skilfully, and you’ll have a willing, cooperative owner who will really work on bringing down the weight.

Some tips on dealing with owners of obese pets:

  • Acknowledge and affirm: Start by acknowledging that the owner loves their dog and wants the best for him. The dog’s condition is a result of love, not neglect.
  • Widen the net – show that they’re not the only ones: Point out that obesity is common in dogs who are loved, that worldwide it is a growing concern, and that none of us are deliberately harming our dogs.
  • Explain the harm it does: Obesity either causes or exacerbates many disease conditions. Explain this in terms the owner can relate to.
  • Help the owner to accept responsibility for managing the dog. Point out that animals are not equipped to manage weight, as we are, and never will be. Pets are entirely dependent on the responsible adult in their lives to help them!
  • Encourage: Show them that it can be done. Give them tips on how to do it. Describe the benefits. Be a motivator!


Marianne Lomberg, owner of KahmaVet in Johannesburg, has been speaking about communication over the last two months on our Onlinepethealth Facebook page. Learn more from Marianne here:

At the 2019 Vet Rehab Summit, Marianne presented a lecture specifically on Owner Compliance & Participation in a Weight Loss Program.


Safety of the Obese Patient during Hydrotherapy Treatment

The safety of the obese patient during hydrotherapy treatment is a serious concern, as obesity greatly increases the likelihood of a weak or dysfunctional cardiac and respiratory system. It is essential that a vet has cleared an obese patient before they start on an exercise program, especially a hydrotherapy program, which comes with unique risks.

Risks are high for a number of reasons. First, the lack of exercise that usually accompanies obesity – whether it is a cause or a result of the weight gain – weakens the cardiorespiratory system. To combat this we need to make sure that we increase the load on the cardiorespiratory system in a slow progression as the system strengthens.

Second, fat build-up occurs not just peripherally, but around internal organs, too. This places the heart and lungs under additional stress as their movement may be restricted by a layer of fat.

Last, we need to consider the effect of hydrostatic pressure on the heart and lungs. The patient is immersed in water, which constricts the chest cavity and forces blood flow back to the heart, causing increased cardiac output and a lot of stress on heart and lungs that are already weak. Water pressure can of course be our ally, as simply immersing the dog in water, without any exercise, already speeds up heart and breathing rates, improving cardiac function passively, as we prepare for active exercise.

Be careful about monitoring heart rate, respiratory rate and colour throughout the hydrotherapy session, ensuring that you do not overload these systems, but build up fitness gradually.


Concurrent conditions of Obesity in Pets

Obesity is rarely seen on its own, and it is worth considering as a cause of some diseases and as a result of others. It may, for instance, by a result of hypothyroidism, diabetes or Cushing’s disease.

It is likely that an obese patient will have an orthopaedic condition such as osteoarthritis, possibly affecting multiple joints.

We need to tailor the hydrotherapy and rehabilitation program to all of the conditions affecting a patient, taking into consideration the best, most appropriate modalities and progressions each pathology.


The Biomechanics of Obesity in Pets

At the 2019 Vet Rehab Summit, Heli Hyytiainen devoted a full lecture to the biomechanics of obesity in canines. You can watch this lecture in the Onlinepethealth member’s portals. Angela Griffiths describes some dogs as having Floaty Butt Syndrome, which neatly captures the biomechanics of overweight patients in water!

We know that fat floats, and as a result, obese patients will be higher in the water. In addition, fat usually accumulates around the abdomen, back and hindquarter, causing the hind end of the dog to lift out of the water, pushing the forequarter lower into the water. This, coupled with a weak forelimb stroke and the inability to create enough upward and forward thrust, places the dog at risk of aspirating water. It also forces them into an incorrect posture, as the neck hyperextends. We need to be very aware of posture and stability in the water, and may need to support some patients with a floatation device and a hand on the sternum as they swim.


Love wants what is best

We love our dogs and want what is best for them, but far too many owners forget that overindulgence is not natural for a dog, and that we are imposing this on them through our own bad habits! It is up to us to develop the communication skills to be able to share this with owners and to facilitate change in their dogs.

You might also point out that love ultimately wants what is best for the other person/dog, and that by helping a pet to reach a healthy weight, we’re going a long way to improving the dog’s overall health and happiness.




The Local & Biological Effects of Obesity, Dr Kenneth Joubert

Biomechanics of the Obese Canine, Heli Hyytiainen

Canine & Feline Obesity, Lowri Davies

Rehabilitation of the Obese Patient, Amie Hesbach

Nutritional Management of Obesity – Part 1, Angela Rollins

Nutritional Management of Obesity – Part 2, Maryanne Murphy

Owner Compliance & Participation in a Weight Loss Program, Marianne Lomberg



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