As a veterinarian, I often hear the same question from pet parents who are wondering how to best help their dog suffering from sore joints: “Should I use ice or heat?” So I decided to clear things up once and for all. Here is everything you need to know about cold vs. heat therapy, how to ease your dog’s joint pain easily using heat therapy, and how to make your own DIY heating pad.
Cold Therapy vs. Heat Therapy
To begin, let’s examine how to know if ice or heat is best for your dog. The answer is quite simple. For dogs suffering from arthritis, heat therapy is best. If your dog has recently had joint surgery, you want to use cold therapy for the first 72 hours after therapy, then switch to heat therapy. The same goes for if your dog has recently suffered an acute injury or performed strenuous exercise.
For the first 72 hours, cold therapy is crucial for reducing inflammation. It works by stimulating constriction of the blood vessels, thereby slowing circulation to the injured area and preventing many of the “bad” inflammatory mediators from harming tissue. You can perform cold therapy by placing a cold gel pack, ice, or bag of frozen peas wrapped in a towel to the affected area for ten minutes.
How Can Moist Heat Therapy Help My Dog?
Let me be clear: Moist heat therapy is one of the best, easiest, and (sadly) most underutilized therapeutic modalities you can use to ease your dog’s joint pain and promote healing. 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.
Moist heat therapy will help to:
- Decrease pain
- Increase blood flow to promote healing
- Increase local tissue metabolism and stretchability
What’s more, moist heat therapy will help prevent your dog from falling into a vicious cycle due to joint pain and stiffness. The cycle looks like this:
- In inflamed joints, blood/lymphatic circulation is slowed or interrupted.
- Nutrients necessary for maintaining healthy muscles will not be carried as well throughout the body.
- Because muscles are undernourished, mobility decreases.
- Because mobility decreases, joints are not moved correctly and become stiff and painful
- Untreated stiff joints result in less or no range of motion (more pain).
- Because joints are not mobile, blood/lymphatic circulation is further restricted, toxins accumulate, and the cycle continues.
Luckily moist heat therapy is a simple (and cheap!) way to break the cycle and prevent your pup from a load of unnecessary pain.
How Do I Perform Moist Heat Therapy on My Dog?
Moist heat therapy is by no means rocket science, but there are some basic guidelines you should know to prevent injury to your dog and ensure the most benefits:
Favor moist heat:
Moist heat penetrates the tissues better and is, therefore, more effective than dry 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. (Hint: We also show you how to make your own DIY heating pad at the end of this article)
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.
Let your pup relax:
It’s easiest to perform heat therapy while your dog is lying down and relaxing. It’s not unusual for your dog to fall asleep during the heat therapy process, which shows just how soothing this treatment can be.
Test the temp:
The heat should be warm enough to the touch but not so hot that it burns you – test it out by first holding it to your skin for 20 seconds. If your dog displays any signs of discomfort such as excessive movement, growling, or biting, stop the treatment immediately.
How Often Should I Perform Moist Heat Therapy on My 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. To get a detailed week-by-week plan for your dog’s recovery from joint surgery, including heat and cold therapy, at-home exercises, and more, browse our free Home Rehab Guides for Pet Owners here.
DIY Heating Pad
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:
- Fill a cotton tube sock or knee-length sock with four cups of rice or whole corn (note: avoid popping corn!)
- Tie a knot at the open end of the sock, or stitch it closed.
- Microwave it for about one minute (maybe slightly shorter or longer to reach the desired temperature, depending on your microwave)
Voilá! There you have it – everything you need to know about helping your dog’s joints using heat alone. As I mentioned, moist heat therapy is one of the easiest, cheapest, and most effective treatments in veterinary medicine, yet one of the most underutilized. By taking the initiative to get educated by reading this article, you’ve done both yourself and your dog a huge favor.