Most days you’ll find Heather Whitfield in a wet suit, hip deep in a pool, coaxing an animal to swim towards her.
Whitfield runs an animal hydrotherapy centre in Lyttelton, Centurion, Pretoria, with the terribly punny name of Paws-itive Paws-abilities.
The centre is equipped with an indoor pool, an underwater treadmill, spa bath therapy and an outdoor dog training area.
On the day the reporter arrived, the centre was permeated by the subtle scent of wet dog. Whitfield was on the floor working with a four-year-old pug that had recently been operated on to repair numerous slipped discs.
She was applying ultrasound therapy to alleviate pain and boost blood circulation. “Ohhh, this is so nice for you my little sweetie pea,” she crooned in its ear, while gently massaging its hind legs.
How did a former public relations officer and personal assistant in the marketing industry get into the business of helping to rehabilitate hurt animals?
A car accident in 2005 changed the course of her life. Her back was so severely injured that she had to undergo major spinal surgery. For six months, she underwent hydrotherapy to learn how to walk again.
“I began to realise that life was too short not to do the things that I wanted to do, and mine was working with animals,” she says.
“It occurred to me that if I could benefit so much from hydrotherapy, so could animals.” She had always loved animals, having grown up on a farm in Polokwane, where she was surrounded by many creatures.
“I also recalled that when I was a little girl I saw my mom – she had a ‘human’ physiotherapy background – applying physiotherapy to our little dachshund, who had a spinal injury.”
After she recovered from her injuries, Whitfield began to research courses in the animal industry. She also met Alison Glen, who had just opened an animal hydrotherapy centre called Doggy Paddle in Johannesburg. Glen was a huge inspiration and a source of information to her.
Whitfield gave up her job and obtained a position at the SA office of Tellington TTouch, a method to train and exercise animals. There she met like-minded people.
In 2006, she became a registered Jack Russell breeder. In the next few years, she completed a number of courses in animal behaviour and training, including an eight-month course in animal hydrotherapy in the UK. She qualified as a puppy socialisation instructor and dog trainer, a Tellington TTouch companion animal practitioner and an animal hydrotherapist.
Whitfield gained practical experience at Doggy Paddle, when Glen contacted her to assist at the centre for nine months while she went on maternity leave.
Then she decided to take a leap of faith and open her own centre. At first, she worked out of a wendy house in her yard, working with one patient at a time. Then, after a year of negotiations with a property owner, she bought a smallholding in Centurion.
The place was perfect. It had a house for her and her two grown children, a large garden, a tennis court which she converted into a dog training area, and a shed which she knocked down to build a spacious centre. “It was the vision of what I wanted and it was up to the UK practice standards.”
The centre offers a number of services including puppy socialisation classes, animal behaviour consultations, hydrotherapy and rehabilitation, massage therapy and clicker training.
She also sells Nina Ottosson products, educational puzzles for dogs and cats.
She says vets have been overwhelming in their support. They refer patients to her for an array of pre- and post-operative rehabilitation for orthopaedic or neurological conditions, degenerative conditions, sport injuries (mainly working and sporting dogs), weight loss, geriatric patients and all kinds of musculoskeletal injuries.
The first animal she treated was a tiny French poodle that came to her with a severe hip problem.
“It was a 14-year-old geriatric, but after a hydro treatment it had a new lease on life,” says Whitfield.
Apart from treating cats and dogs, Whitfield says she has dealt with some odd patients – overweight bunnies that had to be exercised in the pool, chickens that had severe problems with their legs, a bearded dragon that had a disability with its tail which affected its balance, and monkeys with spinal problems, rickets disease or those who’d been injured in falls.
One patient that stands out was Blade, a 94kg boerboel that had severe fits and collapsed because his weight could no longer support him.
“I drove to the [owner’s] smallholding, found Blade stuck in the passage, unable to walk. He was huge, and had no muscle tone.”
Blade was snapping at his owner because he was in pain.
“We finally got him outside and did some massage. It took two hours of work to get him calm – we also had to calm the owner down – but we eventually got Blade into my car.”
The owner and dog stayed with her for a number of weeks. Its weight was brought down to 88kg in five weeks.
“We put him in the pool, where he would swim for 12 minutes at a time. His recovery was amazing.”
The most unusual animal she has had at her practice so far was a huge python that was constipated. Whitfield performed TTouch belly lifts on the snake as well as massage therapy – “all of this with the python on the step of the pool”.
“Both owner and snake were happy when the snake managed to relieve himself a few hours later.”
Whitfield says it is challenging not get emotionally involved with a patient, and not to lose hope when the vet and owner has.
But she has no regrets about changing her career. She says the job satisfaction is immeasurable, and the people who take their animals to her are just as passionate about them as she is.
Being the boss, it is hard work, she says. And the hours she puts in can be overwhelming.
“But getting up every morning knowing that this day I will make a difference in some animal’s life is amazing, gratifying, heart-warming and enjoyable.”
What is hydrotherapy?
Hydrotherapy or aquatic therapy, says Heather Whitfield, is the use or application of water to promote or supplement the healing process.
It is a non-stressful form of exercise and can be as basic as soaking sore feet or tired muscles in a warm bath, submerging the body or part of the body in a spa bath, swimming in a heated pool, or using an underwater treadmill.
These and other water activities including massage provide a range of motion or exercise to limbs, bones, joints, muscles or nerves.
The primary advantage to hydrotherapy is that it is a weightless environment.
During the exercise the animal can move a limb with minimal stress or strain, allowing the muscle to move and strengthen. It also allows the tendons and ligaments to tighten up.