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Water therapy centre helping dogs swim back to better health

A hydrotherapy centre near Lisburn offers help for animals recovering from injury and illness, and offers swimming lessons and recreation too. Linda Stewart learns how the family-run business was established

Making waves: Joanne Mulholland with Havoc in the pool
Making waves: Joanne Mulholland with Havoc in the pool

By Linda Stewart

Joanne Mulholland had been bringing her two rottweilers to hydrotherapy for years to treat their medical conditions. The therapy involves using water for pain relief and treatment and has been used by humans since ancient times. However, it only started to be used for dogs in the racing industry in the past 100 years.

It proved hugely beneficial for Joanne's two dogs, so when the company that ran the hydrotherapy service shut , she was faced with a dilemma - and she ended up establishing her own hydrotherapy business for dogs.

Joanne (48) has been running the Aqua Dog hydrotherapy and recreation centre close to her home in Lisburn for four years.

Her son Luke (19) has now joined the business, along with two other staff members.

"We always had dogs when we were growing up - we lived in the country," Joanne says.

"I had rottweilers who needed hydrotherapy for medical conditions. That was approximately 14 years ago.

"Katie was referred at eight months old for hip dysplasia and Leyna was referred two years later for a cruciate ligament.

"Katie went on and lived for 11 years with very few hip problems after she began treatment.

"We swam her frequently and I think it helped to keep her strength and her muscle tone around the hip.

"For years they were swimming in lakes and the sea and in rivers - they were always quite active.

Joanne Mulholland with Kaiser
Joanne Mulholland with Kaiser

"Leyna ended up losing a leg when she was about five. It was due to an infection in the bone that wasn't curable.

"She went to hydrotherapy after her recovery in order to keep the strength in the other leg. She managed really well and it didn't hinder her in any way.

"However, when she was about 10, she started to slow down and we started to look for alternative forms of exercise.

"She was still able to walk around the lakes at Hillsborough on the forest path, but she only had one back leg and we were always conscious that leg was her lifeline and were worried in case anything happened to it.

"At one point she went off the back leg and wasn't able to stand or walk, but within two weeks we had her back up on the leg again. We swam her every other day and she was only in the pool for a few minutes."

When the company that offered hydrotherapy closed, Joanne's husband James (50) suggested buying the equipment and setting up their own service.

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"I thought about it and I decided to have a look at it. That was approximately four years ago now," Joanne says.

"We were very lucky. We were able to convert premises that were a mile from our house. We just had to put in some drainage and make the room waterproof. We didn't have a lot of work to do to the premises.

"Now we're doing hydrotherapy rehabilitation and conservative management for arthritic dogs, which keeps them mobile.

Joanne Mulholland with Havoc
Joanne Mulholland with Havoc

"For the rehabilitation we do pre and post-surgery swimming, helping dogs to build muscle strength in the joints. They can recover through hydrotherapy much more quickly than they can go for walks."

Aqua Dog also offers swimming lessons for dogs.

"People who have pups bring them in and get them used to being in a water environment. We're teaching them to swim," Joanne says.

"We also have older dogs who have never been in the water or are afraid of water and we help to get them over their fear.

"Hydrotherapy can also help with weight loss."

Hydrotherapy improves the healing process, with warm water increasing bloodflow to the muscles to promote tissue repair and muscle tone.

Unlike walking, in swimming the breathing muscles have to work much harder, which strengthens and improves the complete respiratory system. Water-based exercise uses 30% more oxygen than land-based and contributes to better bloodflow and increased muscle bulk.

The team have all undergone interactive training and qualification at other hydrotherapy centres.

Joanne stresses that when a dog arrives, there is a lot of consultation with the owner and the animal is allowed to get to know the room and familiarise itself with its surroundings.

"We treat a lot of sick rescue dogs who are nervous of people," she says.

"When you arrive at the centre, we make sure to check that the pool room is clear of other dogs before bringing your own in as some dogs may not be sociable.

"We like to spend some time letting the dog wander around the pool room and get comfortable by using toys and lots of cuddles before we do anything.

"We also talk with the owner and have a discussion to get to know as much as possible about your dog, so we can give the best possible personalised treatment."

Once the dog is settled, it is fitted with a life jacket and is ready to go into the pool, which is kept at 32 degrees.

"Because of the environment, it's totally different to going into the sea or a river, so we put a lifejacket on them. They build up to being able to get into the water in the harness," Joanne says.

"We monitor their heart rate and we monitor their breathing. If the dog is anxious, we monitor all that while they are in the pool. We get the client to interact with the dog as much as possible. They are there to be treated, but we want them to enjoy it as much as possible."

The treatment may involve massaging the muscles while the dog is on a ramp in order to help the joints and muscles. It may continue at home with physiotherapy carried out by the owner.

After the hydrotherapy session finishes, the dog is shampooed and dried.

"We are waiting on a pool pod to arrive and then we will be able to do even more standalone work in the pool," Joanne says.

The company has gone from strength to strength and has reached the finals of the Families First Awards and the Lisburn & Castlereagh City Business Awards.

"I would say it's been the best decision I've ever made. I get so much out of it," Joanne says.

"I would say I am one of the few people who enjoys going to work every day. You get to meet a lot of dogs, different breeds and build up a lot of friendships.

"For me, I enjoy it. It's so rewarding to be able to help dogs that need help and people have been able to keep their dogs a little bit longer."

  • For more information, visit or visit the stall at the Belfast Telegraph Pet Expo sponsored by We Are Vertigo

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