Swimming has numerous advantages over running or walking. The muscles still have to work hard, pulling the limbs against the resistance of the water. However in the water, the natural buoyancy of the body supports the animal's weight, and the joints are not under the same stress as they are during running. This means that for certain animals, swimming has positive advantages.
Some injuries (e.g. lameness or back problems) mean that an animal needs to be completely rested for a prolonged period. Exercise must be reintroduced slowly and carefully, without over-stressing the injured part of the animal. Swimming can be very useful here. Some racehorse and greyhound trainers have in-house swimming pools which they use to assist the return of their athletes to full racing condition. I treated a dog which was almost paralysed following a blood clot in its spinal cord. The dog had a slow recovery over many months, and was unable to support its hind legs in the early stages. Walking was difficult, but with careful human support in the water, the dog enjoyed paddling all four limbs weakly but steadily. This played an important role in his recovery and eventual return to normality.
Obesity is a common problem amongst today's pampered pets, and this is treated with a combination of diet and exercise. Some unfortunate animals are so overweight that they have difficulty walking any distance at all without dropping down exhausted. They are carrying the equivalent of a couple of sacks of coal on their backs. However, when swimming, this excess weight is supported by the water, and they can comfortably burn up energy by vigorous paddling of their limbs.
Arthritis of the hips, shoulders, knees and elbows affects many dogs, especially in certain breeds. Muscular exercise is important, to maintain the strength of the structures which surround and support the joints, but it is not good for damaged joints to be subjected to the stress and pressure of running and walking. Swimming provides a good mix of strenuous muscle toning with minimal weight bearing on the joints, and for many dogs, this can form a useful part of the daily routine.
Swimming is also useful for cooling down in hot weather. Dogs overheat quickly when given normal exercise on hot summer days - they cannot get rid of the excess heat produced by their hard-working muscles. When they are immersed in cold water, this body heat naturally dissipates, and they can carry on exercising comfortably for longer.
Swimming can be beneficial to some dogs' itchy skin - the cool water can soothe the red, inflamed skin common with certain types of dermatitis. The saltiness of sea water can sometimes help, although it can also aggravate some cases, so should be introduced with care. Water can fill the ear canals if your dog likes to go fully underwater, and this can contribute to itchy ears, so owners should look out for this as well.
Many dogs obtain tremendous enjoyment from swimming - they leap into the water, head held high in glorious anticipation of the splash. Their swimming stroke is effective but not elaborate or pretty - the doggy paddle won't be replaced by front crawl or breast stroke any time soon, even by experienced canine swimmers!
Remember though, safety must always come first! Water can be dangerous, and drownings of dogs do occur. Owners should never let swimming dogs out of their sight. In particular, dogs can have trouble getting back out of water, especially when tired, and they might need assistance. To avoid this, try to always let your dog swim near easy exit points such as gently sloping embankments, beaches or slipways, and away from water enclosed by high walls or steep embankments.
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