Canine Cryo- and Heat Therapy: Should I Use Ice or Heat, Doc?

A client with an injured dog is leaving the office after treatment and asks “Should I use ice or heat on that, Doc?”

This question is asked of me a lot. I deal with orthopedic issues and pain in most of my patients. A great therapy to do at home that is very inexpensive to relieve pain is either cryotherapy (ice) or thermotherapy (heat). However, it seems that most people are confused about when to use heat or cold. Well, I am going to tell you and it is simple.

Canine Cryo- and Heat Therapy: Should I Use Ice or Heat, Doc?

Cryotherapy (ice) is for acute (within the last 1-2 weeks) injuries to calm down body parts that are inflamed, warm and swollen.


Thermotherapy (heat) is for muscles and usually a chronic (greater than 2 weeks) problem.

It is used to help control muscle spasms and trigger points and to relieve contraction of soft tissues such as damaged muscles, tendons, and ligaments.

The rule of thumb

If it is warm and swollen, use ice. If it is a muscle that is stiff and tight use heat

As always it is best to ask your vet, especially if you are unsure. Although both of these therapies are relatively safe, it is possible to do more harm to your dog if you use either incorrectly. That is especially true if you use heat on inflammation. If you use cold on tight muscles it can create more discomfort rather than help.

Certain soft tissue orthopedic problems such as a torn ligament, tendon or muscle can be difficult to assess when to use cold or heat so you just have to remember to keep it simple.

Is it acute (did it occur within the last two weeks), is it swollen, and is it warm?

If the answer is yes to these questions, especially the last one, then use ice. After 3-5 days of ice on one of these injuries, you may be able to switch to heat. Heat will help with healing and prevent the soft tissue from tightening.

How about a dog with chronic arthritis that is suddenly limping?

Obviously, it is not an acute problem, or is it? A dog known to have arthritis that is suddenly limping may have injured itself and aggravated the arthritic joint, which would make it an acute problem on top of a chronic one.

Keep it simple – is it warm?

If it is warm then most likely you need to use ice, however, in this situation, you may have to rely on the dog telling you what it wants. If the dog really resists either ice or heat then it is OK to try the other therapy. The reason we are even doing these therapies is to relieve pain, if you are causing pain by applying the therapy you are defeating the purpose.

Just remember, the keep it simple method of using ice vs heat – if it is warm and swollen, use ice.

If it is a muscle that is stiff and tight, use heat. If the dog really resists the therapy try the other therapy.

Related articles:
Heat and Cold Therapy for Dogs: When To Use Heat versus Cold?

Further reading:
4 Therapies That Can Speed Up Your Dog’s Healing

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