Rescue dog rehab: how hydrotherapy gets them back on their feet, and helps with arthritis, post-op recovery

Hydrotherapy for dogs allows them to exercise and play without putting any weight on joints. It helps dogs with arthritis or hip dysplasia, and those recovering from hip or spinal surgery, making them stronger and more mobile.

Hydrotherapy for dogs allows them to exercise and play without putting any weight on joints. It helps dogs with arthritis or hip dysplasia, and those recovering from hip or spinal surgery, making them stronger and more mobile.

Not every dog that takes to the hydrotherapy pool at Heal Animal Wellness and Rehabilitation is a natural or enthusiastic swimmer. But the Hong Kong centre’s owner and lead therapist, Wendy Tan, does her best to make sure every pet is safe when they’re in the water – from big German shepherds that soak the entire room when leaping in, to teacup poodles knocked off their feet by gusts from the hairdryer afterwards.

Heal Animal Wellness and Rehabilitation, in the Sai Ying Pun neighbourhood of Hong Kong Island, is a centre for dogs to regain their strength after an operation, exercise with less pain if they have joint problems, or simply play and grow confident in water – as long as they have the go-ahead from a vet.

“The pool is non-weight-bearing and almost acts like a pressure bandage on limbs, which helps with pain relief. They’re getting stronger without having put load on the limb,” Tan, 45, says.

Hydrotherapy, which involves exercising while floating, as opposed to just swimming, can be particularly helpful for conditions such as arthritis, a common problem in dogs.

Tan with Ellie, an injured Samoyed at Heal. Photo: Edmond So
Tan with Ellie, an injured Samoyed at Heal. Photo: Edmond So

“It’s not just the strengthening, but mobility,” Tan says. “When dogs lose mobility, you start seeing them deteriorate fast. They have four legs: if they’re not moving, their quality of life decreases. A lot of these problems can’t be fixed, but what we can give them is better quality of life.”

Since opening in May 2018, the centre has seen a range of canine clients, many of which have trouble exercising normally.

Rusty is a four-year-old Pomeranian rescued from a shelter by Irene Kwok Siu-see, who didn’t realise the extent of his problems when she brought him home in December 2018. A former breeding dog, he could barely stand due to a luxating patella – a dislocating knee – that gave him a hunched posture and caused hip problems, probably due to having been kept in a cage at a puppy mill.

Tan works with Rusty, an injured Pomeranian. Photo: Edmond So
Tan works with Rusty, an injured Pomeranian. Photo: Edmond So

“The shelter told me he’d need to have a leg amputated, but I thought he was cute and decided to adopt him anyway,” says Kwok, 57, who is retired. “Then I took him to a vet, who was shocked at how bad his condition was and told me I’d have to think about whether he’d be worth the expense.”

Kwok says she was saddened by friends telling her to return the dog. “One day, I said to him, ‘Should I keep you?’ and he put his paw on me, so I thought, ‘OK, I’ll keep you.’ I wanted to give him a better life.”

After researching the benefits of swimming for dogs, Kwok got a referral letter from her vet and took her pet to Heal.

Tan takes Ellie the Samoyed to the hydrotherapy pool. Photo: Edmond So
Tan takes Ellie the Samoyed to the hydrotherapy pool. Photo: Edmond So

Rusty barks excitedly as Tan, wearing a wet suit and standing in the water, holds onto the dog’s buoyancy vest through simple exercises. Passers-by crowd around the shop’s windows as the peanut-coloured dog zips up and down the pool to win his favourite treats.

After a couple of months swimming twice a week for 25 minutes at a time, Rusty has gained strength, helping him achieve previously impossible feats.

“When I first got him, he didn’t know how to go up or down stairs and I didn’t think he’d be able to do it,” Kwok says. “But swimming helped him stand and one night we were on a walk and approached some stairs that he decided to jump up. I was so happy I wanted to cry.”

The benefits of swimming for the treatment and prevention of leg injuries in horses have known for centuries. Hydrotherapy for dogs is said to have originated during the 20th century for racing greyhounds before becoming more a mainstream therapy – mainly in the West.

Dog hydrotherapy was first used on greyhounds in the 20th century. Photo: Shutterstock
Dog hydrotherapy was first used on greyhounds in the 20th century. Photo:

Despite many landlords in Hong Kong imposing restrictions on pet ownership, and cramped flats being the norm, the city’s pet economy is booming. Ownership has grown over the past decade, with nearly 300,000 households keeping a total of 510,600 pets in 2015-16, and dogs outnumbering cats roughly 2:1, according to a survey by research firm Mercado Associates.

With the government and charities urging animal-lovers to adopt pets instead of buying them, and increasing awareness of animal health, the population of older pets is expected to rise, creating a pet care market specialised in age-related conditions and improving pets’ quality of life through hydrotherapy, physiotherapy, acupuncture and rehabilitation.

Hydrotherapy “is only a new option which has become available to the veterinary profession in the last few years and is slowly growing in popularity”, says Dr Tom Mangan, president of the Hong Kong Veterinary Association. He says the therapy can benefit in cases where weight bearing is restricted.

“Obviously animals have to be closely supervised while in the water and need to be dried and kept warm afterwards, [but] it can be a very helpful additional therapy, particularly for animals recovering from hip and spinal surgery as well as dogs with hip arthritis and other mobility issues which still need exercise.”

Tan puts Ellie through her paces. Photo: Edmond So
Tan puts Ellie through her paces. Photo: Edmond So

Several facilities in Hong Kong provide underwater treadmills, whereby the dog walks on a moving submerged platform, and there are a number of dog swimming pools focused on play, such as Petworld Resort in Yuen Long, which allows multiple dogs to swim simultaneously. As well as Heal, there is also Dog Dog Come Wonderland, a larger centre in Sai Kung that, alongside massage and physiotherapy treatments, offers recreational, grooming and training services.

Mangan advises owners to be cautious of skin infections from contaminated water, a risk when lots of animals are swimming in unchanged water. Other considerations include the temperature of the pool: too hot or cold and the animal will suffer. With a filtering system that uses both chemicals and UV light, circulating the water every three hours, Tan can fine-tune her pool to the changing seasons and needs of her clients.

Ted Holtmark van Dijkerhof arrives at the centre with Ellie, his Samoyed, and Tofu, an Alaskan malamute, two of the six dogs he and his wife share their Yuen Long home with.

“I’m actually a cat person,” chuckles the 47-year-old filmmaker, whose pack requires three walks and HK$270 (HK$35) worth of food a day. Ellie has been brought to Heal as part of an ongoing effort to manage her hip dysplasia, an incurable condition caused by poorly developed muscles in the pelvic area that particularly affects larger breeds. Tofu came along just for the ride.

Ellie has hip dysplasia caused by weak pelvic muscles. The condition is incurable but treatable. Photo: Edmond So
Ellie has hip dysplasia caused by weak pelvic muscles. The condition is incurable but treatable. Photo: Edmond So

With a stoic disposition common in Arctic breeds, Ellie masks the trauma she has experienced during her six years. Abandoned by a breeder, she was in poor health when the couple adopted her, with part of her windpipe collapsed due to debarking – a mutilating practice whereby a dog has its vocal cords cut to prevent barking – leaving her only able to produce a hoarse gasping sound.

Few figures exist on the scale of debarking in Hong Kong; while the procedure is not illegal in the city if carried out by a qualified professional, it is widely condemned by vets as inhumane and carries risk of long-term complications.

Strapped into a doggy life vest, Ellie is guided across the pool by Tan, who massages the dog’s back legs through her thick white fur.

She became Heal’s first client last year not long after the centre opened, swimming weekly after an initial consultation with Tan picked up on pain in her back legs that a vet diagnosed as dysplasia. “It’s not a condition that will ever improve; the only thing you can do is manage the pain and keep the muscles and tendons around the joint strong,” Holtmark von Dijkerhof says. “When we got here, she slid on her belly to go downstairs. Now, she jumps up and down them. It’s amazing.”

Few Hong Kong vets are familiar with hydrotherapy and do not automatically prescribe it. Holtmark von Dijkerhof says some were sceptical of its efficacy when he brought it up.

Some dogs take to water while others need encouragement. Photo: Shutterstock
Some dogs take to water while others need encouragement. Photo: Shutterstock

“It’s not always something vets are interested in, so we have an open house for vets to come and learn about what we do,” says Tan, who is affiliated with the National Association of Registered Canine Hydrotherapists, a professional standards organisation established in 2010 in Britain. No such equivalent exists in Hong Kong.

For Tan, a former journalist originally from Singapore, opening Heal echoes her own ongoing recovery from illness – only hers wasn’t one that could be helped by physiotherapy. Her problems began after she moved to Hong Kong to work for a public relations firm six years ago.

“Around three years ago, I started having panic attacks,” she says. “To this day, I can’t put my finger on a specific trigger.

“I’d need to fly to our office in Singapore every six weeks, so flying wasn’t a new experience, but one day I was about to get on the plane and just couldn’t. I was hyperventilating and sweating, and felt like my heart was palpitating.”

A Rottweiler takes the plunge. Photo: Seth Casteel
A Rottweiler takes the plunge. Photo: Seth Casteel

Despite her job requiring her to travel, she became bound to Hong Kong for six months but felt unable to tell her friends and colleagues what she was experiencing. “I was keeping it from everybody and trying to find excuses why I couldn’t travel: it’s not something people can really understand if they’ve never gone through it.”

Thanks to a forceful friend, Tan ended up braving the journey to Singapore to see a doctor, who diagnosed her with anxiety and put her on medication. It would be a further four months before she could pluck up the courage to return to Hong Kong. “I decided I needed to get this under control,” she says. “That’s how it started with the dogs.”

After realising that being around dogs helped her feel calmer, she began fostering for Lifelong Animal Protection and Hong Kong Dog Rescue, two charities that rehome dogs. However, after the deaths of several foster dogs from non-preventable illnesses, she began to focus on animal health care and came across hydrotherapy. After completing training programmes in Britain and the US, she ploughed her life’s savings into opening a rehabilitation centre in Hong Kong.

“Taking care of a living thing helped me stop focusing on myself,” she says, stroking her own dog, Lizzie, a deaf terrier who naps in her arms. What keeps her motivated, Tan says, is seeing animals progress.

“Some come in not being able to walk, then are able to walk out. This gives me so much satisfaction. Some clients have very clear goals we know we can hit – like strengthening Ellie’s hips. But we weren’t sure we could save Rusty’s leg. Now he stands on his back legs.”

The name of Tan’s business is symbolic in more ways than one. “At a literal level, Heal describes the business and encapsulates what we do. It’s all about helping animals feel better. It’s also a play on ‘heel’, which is a command for dogs,” she explains.

Tan adds: “But on a personal level, this whole project and how I got here and the satisfaction it gives me, is very much about my own recovery from anxiety and from that difficult time in my life. It healed me too.”

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