First of all let me give you some background on why I came to build a pet hydrotherapy tank:
Last year my pet cockapoo Ted was diagnosed with elbow dysplasia. He started limping after playing fetch one day and after weeks on doggy ibuprofen it had not got any better so we took him to a specialist vet who ran a CT scan on his legs and discovered he had elbow dysplasia, a condition where the bones that make up the elbow do not grow together properly and essentially end up rubbing a lot and then breaking into pieces. It was actually found in both legs, but usually presents in the worst affected as a limp first. His limp wasn't that bad so he suggested some stronger anti-inflammatories to see if that would get it under control. A few weeks later he was limp free, but we knew this condition would only get worse with age and the limp likely come back at some point, so we had to try and manage his condition. He was essentially now a disabled doggy. Surgery for this condition is only really an option in dogs under 4 years old as when attempted over 4 the chances of a better outcome are only 50/50, and there is a chance it could get worse, therefore it's only worthwhile if the condition is already really debilitating. Ted is currently 7 years old.
Now the limp had subsided the vet advised we reduce the meds a bit a time but it could be the case that he has to stay on them indefinitely if his limp returned after reducing them. We were also advised to significantly reduce his exercise - only two 10 minute walks a day where he must be kept on a leash; no running! Thankfully his limp didn't return, but you could tell in his mood that he wasn't happy, so rather than put him back on the meds (which had a long list of negative side effects when taken long term) we decided to try him on CBD. This actually seemed to work very well. His mood and energy lifted very quickly after just a small amount. This was positive, but we also knew that with reduced exercise his muscle mass would deteriorate, rendering his elbows less supported by the muscle tissue around them. But walking to maintain this muscle mass would cause impact through the joints which wasn't good either. Therefore the best solution was going to be hydrotherapy. Just 10 minutes in the pool is akin to hour of walking, and it's zero impact. This would also help keep him at a good weight which is also beneficial in a dog with joint issues - less weight impacting the joint!
At the time it was summer, so this was a simple solution. I just bought a 1.5m x 2m above ground pool to stick in the garden, filled it up and viola he was swimming. He's usually quite happy in water, chasing sticks we throw into lakes and swimming around to collect them, but in this pool in my garden, as there was no obvious exit, he seemed to panic and would try to escape if left to his own devices. I therefore had to hold him in place using the handle on his life jacket. Holding him in this position for 10 minutes every day really started hurting my back so I had to find a solution. I thought about attaching him to a rope so he couldn't swim forward, but then he would just escape at the sides, so I eventually figured out putting 4 ropes in each corner and connecting in the middle, then suspending him from where the ropes met would work. I bought some ratchet hooks for this which worked perfectly! I was quite pleased!!
This worked well for the summer months, but before long the temperatures started to drop and the water temperature was getting far too cold. Cold water can be bad for joints so it was losing its therapeutic benefit. You can buy pool heaters but they would not be effective enough throughout the winter where temps often reach freezing (0 celcius), plus it would cost an absolute fortune. I therefore knew that we needed a new solution. There were a couple of hydrotherapy pools about 30 minutes drive away that we could take him to, but they cost £30 a session for 30 minutes, 15 of which was usually spent getting in and out of the pool. For hydrotherapy to be most effective it needs to be done most days as to keep the muscle mass up - it's very easy to lose fitness! Therefore the time and cost involved in this solution was just too much. There must be another way!!
I was determined. There was space in the garage to build something, but it had to be rectangular as there was no space width-wise for a circular tank. It's also cold in there so whatever I built would need to be insulated. I had a budget of a few hundred pounds. I took to google and to my surprise rectangular water tanks only went up to a certain size in cheap plastics. Turns out beyond a certain size they can't support the weight of the water and just collapse. The largest I could find was just big enough to get Ted in so I picked it up for £60 on eBay. I also bought a few sheets of 100mm high density polystyrene to use as insulation (another £60) and an aquarium heater to keep the water at a constant temperature (£20) - a total of a lot less than I had budgeted for. Result!
Once it all arrived I got to work. It didn't take took long to put together. I knew I would need a way to drain the water out once it got really dirty so I drilled a hole in the side of the tank toward the bottom and sealed a hose connector into it, allowing me to drain it away through my garden hose. I then cut the polystyrene up with a saw and shrink wrapped it to the tank. Lastly I attached the aquarium heater. It was time to put it to the test! I filled it up, got Ted in his life jacket and lifted him in.....
Disaster! The tank was wider at the top than it was at the bottom, so it "stepped" down in height, giving Ted something to hang onto. As you can see I tried to remedy this by sticking some left over lino flooring on top of the steps, but it wasn't effective. Back to square one and some budget lost, but not wasted, I had learned some things!
I was quite deflated at this point because I wasn't sure how to get a bigger tank without spending a fortune. Rectangular tanks above this size were all made with glass reinforced plastics as to cope with the weight of the water, and I was looking at £1000 for one of them - way out of my budget. I spent hours looking around and thankfully I just happened to stumble across an IBC tank. I had widened my search to look for any type of water tank, not just open top, and as a result IBC tanks started to appear. As they were surround in a metal cage I wondered if I could just cut the top off. I had a look on YouTube and discovered that people had done just that for a variety of different projects - aquariums, ponds, aquaponic systems. I was very happy, something else I could try! This tank was also great in many other ways - it had a tap in built into the bottom which I could connect a hose to using an IBC tank hose connector adaptor, and it comes on a pallet, allowing me to insulate it from underneath as well. There was a slight worry in that the width was only 30cm wider than the previous tank and I couldn't be sure he wouldn't "starfish" in that as well. I had to try, so I found it cheap on ebay for £100 delivered. As the dimensions were bigger I had to buy a bit more insulation (another £60) and a more powerful aquarium heater (£50) as this tank would take quite a bit more water. I also needed to buy a reciprocating saw to chop the top off the tank. At this point I had spent around £400. Approaching max budget but still doing OK.
Once the tank arrived I went back to work. The electric saw made light work of taking the top off. I kept the top to use as a lid. Like with the old tank I shrink wrapped insulation around the it, as well as some on the underside of the lid and around the edges of the lid so it would sit snugly on top. I added some foil insulation to drape over the sides to cover any gaps between lid and tank. This made the lid quite heavy so I decided to make a pulley system to help lift it off. This was also beneficial as there wasn't much space left in the garage to put it once I had taken it off. After putting it all together, aquarium heater n all, this is what it looked like:
This was the moment of truth. I attached the ratchet hooks to the frame of the garage, hooked Ted on and lowered him in. Sucess!!! He's swimming!!
One thing I hadn't considered was how quickly it would get dirty. Within a couple of swims you couldn't even see the bottom of the tank. I couldn't refill the tank every few swims as it would waste so much water, plus it takes quite a while to empty through a small hose. I therefore had to perform an upgrade and attach a pool filter. In one of the YouTube videos I had watched I saw someone attach two tanks together using piping and some uniseals to prevent leakage so I knew this was what was required to attach a filter. After emptying the tank, drilling the appropriate hole, inserting the uniseals and pool filter it was sorted. I was slightly nervous refilling it as I wasn't sure the seals would hold, but thankfully they did! This is what it looked like:
This is how much one day of the filter running picks up, and the water still remains quite dirty. I also had to start treating the water with a small amount of chlorine each day to help keep the water clear and free of algae and other organisms as to make the water last longer before replacing.
After a couple of months it is still going well. The insulation works well, the water temperature is kept at a steady 20 degrees celcius. I'm very proud of my achievement! It was a great learning experience and now Ted gets to do his hydro every day for the tiny overall cost of around £400. I would recommend this to anyone with a pet who has joint problems. Ted is about 1m long, so it may not be appropriate for pets much bigger.
If you're interested I buy this CBD which is mixed with turmeric (a powerful natural anti-inflammatory): https://www.simply-cbd.co.uk/product/liquid-gold/
I work out the dosage to give him using this calculator (weight measurements in lbs):