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

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

Thermotherapy

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

10 Comments
  1. Great post! It’s so important for us to know how to help our fur friends when they’re in pain. Thanks for sharing!

  2. I appreciate how simple you made this. It’s true for humans too and I often get it wrong. I’ve noticed my older arthritic cat naturally seeks out on or the other – cool tile or heated bed. I leave it to him – trying to actually apply either is a big nope.

  3. Our Harvey had cryo surgery on his nose to remove precancerous cells. It was a success and he only has a little bit sneaking back now he is getting older (16). The surgery froze off the surface cells and I was not sure it would work but IT DID.

    If you have any doubts about surgery you have a good talk to your vet, and get a second and third opinion if you need to. Some of this is cutting edge medicine and it works.

  4. That is a very useful tip! Simple, but effective. Definitely one to keep in mind for first aid. I would be the same is true for kitties too.

  5. I appreciate that you added the component about chronic pain with an acute flareup. I think this is very common, and often confusing the pet parents.

  6. Thanks for breaking it down so simply. I can apply this same knowledge for my injuries as well.

  7. Great explanation. It is confusing sometimes for dogs and humans but seems recommendations are the same. I have very bad arthritis in my knees and ankles and frequently injure them so I ice after exercise or injury and warm before or in physio or with massages. Kilo loves massages and I will do the same for him as he ages.

  8. Thanks for the post. I have always been confused about when to use ice. This post makes it simple to understand.

    Do you know of any tips or products that will keep ice or cold on a dog?

    Thanks
    Happyoodles

  9. This is very useful and settles some arguments for me. It’s not a heat versus cold question – it’s a matter of what the injury is. Thank you.

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