The short answer is, yes! Heat therapy is an easy and effective way to relieve pain associated with injury, surgery, or chronic conditions like arthritis. Let’s get into more detail:
How It Works
Heat therapy works by improving the circulation and blood flow to the affected area. This increased blood flow promotes healing by supplying proteins, nutrients, and oxygen while also removing toxins. Increasing the temperature of the affected area even slightly can reduce pain, decrease muscle spasms, and increase local tissue metabolism and stretchability.
When to Use Heat Therapy
If your dog has suffered an injury, heat therapy should only be applied after the initial swelling and inflammation stage (typically 72 hours following the injury). For the first 72 hours, cold therapy is most effective. To perform cold therapy, place a cold gel pack, ice, or bag of frozen peas wrapped in a towel to the affected area for ten minutes.
If your dog has arthritis or another chronic, ongoing condition, heat therapy can be used anytime (with 6 to 8 hours in between sessions) to reduce pain. It’s also especially effective to improve joint range of motion during and after exercise.
Favor Moist Heat
There are two types of heat therapy:
- Dry heat – e.g. heat pads or dry heat packs (such as a hot water bottle)
- Moist heat – e.g. steamed towels or moist heat packs (such as rice, bead, or wheat packs)
Moist heat is recommended over dry heat because the moisture allows the heat to penetrate deeper into tissue. Remember, heat therapy is NOT to be used until 72 hours after surgery or injury.
How to Perform Heat Therapy on Your Dog
The main guideline for performing heat therapy on your dog is to aim for warm as the ideal temperature, not hot. Before placing the source of heat on your dog, always test it on yourself first by holding it to the inside of your wrist for 20 seconds (similar to testing a baby’s bottle). If your dog displays any signs of discomfort such as excessive movement, growling, or biting, stop the treatment immediately.
To perform heat therapy:
- Choose a source of moist heat– Several types of moist heat are available in most drugs stores: examples include gel packs, beads, rice, etc. Another way to provide moist heat is to take a washcloth and wet it with warm water. You can also make your own DIY moist heating pad by filling a cotton tube sock or knee-length sock with four cups of rice or whole corn (note: avoid popping corn!), and then tying or stitching it closed. Then simply microwave it for about one minute (maybe slightly shorter or longer to reach the desired temperature, depending on your microwave).
- Let your pup relax – It’s easiest to perform heat therapy while your dog is lying down and relaxing. Choose a time when they’re already lounging and always make sure they’re comfortable. It’s not unusual for your dog to fall asleep during the heat therapy process, which shows just how soothing this treatment can be.
- Hold the pack in place – For the heat to be effective, hold the pack over the affected area for about 15 minutes, or until your pup’s skin feels warm to the touch.
- Focus on the affected areas –On arthritic dogs, you can apply heat to help soothe their achy joints: shoulders, elbows, and wrists in the front legs, and hips, knees, and ankles in the back legs. For dogs with an injury or recovering from surgery, it can be used on any part of their body that has been affected.
How Often to Use Heat Therapy on Your Dog
Depending on your dog’s circumstances, the frequency you’ll want to use moist heat therapy (and for how long) can vary:
- Typically, moist heat therapy can be repeated every 6 to 8 hours.
- For dogs recovering from a surgery or injury, the frequency will vary depending on how far along they are in the healing process.
As always, talk to your veterinarian before starting any type of therapy on your dog. Heat therapy is one of the best, easiest, and (sadly) most underutilized therapeutic modalities you can use to ease your beloved pet’s joint pain and promote healing, so don’t hesitate to take the initiative to be an advocate for your dog’s well-being and quality of life.
While several heating pad options for moist heat are available at your local pharmacy, you can very easily make one with things you likely already have around the house. Click Here for how to make your heating pad.