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

It is a question commonly asked of physical therapists everywhere: when do I use heat, or should I use cold?

Heat and Cold Therapy for Dogs: When Do I Use Heat versus Cold?

How do you know which one to use?

Your veterinarian or physical therapist will be able to provide this answer for your dog’s individual circumstance, assuming you can contact them.  What if you are unable to reach your dog’s care provider on a timely basis and need to take quick action?  Here are some tips to guide your decision.

Using cold/cryotherapy

Ice packs, cold water pools, cool gel packs, and similar products are forms of cryotherapy.

Heat and Cold Therapy for Dogs: When Do I Use Heat versus Cold?
Physiological effects of cold therapy
  • blood vessel constriction
  • slow-down of cellular metabolism
  • decrease sensory nerve conduction
Therapeutic effects of cold therapy
  • reduced inflammation
  • control of bleeding
  • decrease in pain
  • reduction of redness and warmth

Cryotherapy recommendations

Cryotherapy is best used in the immediate hours after an injury or surgery, called the acute phase.

Treatments are applied for approximately 10 minutes, several times per day, for the first 48 hours. For dogs with thicker coats (assuming the treatment site has not been shaved), increase the treatment time to 15 minutes.

Commercial gel packs used for people that go in the freezer can be used. You can also use chipped ice in a plastic bag, however, this can get messy.

A better method is to make a mixture of 2 parts water and 1 part rubbing alcohol, poured into a double zip-lock plastic bag and placed in the freezer.

This produces a slushy convenient pack.  Another quick and easy solution is to use a bag of frozen vegetables of a small uniform size such as peas or corn.  For each of these methods, first place a thin protective layer over the dog’s skin/fur, such as a pillowcase, small towel or plastic sheet, and then apply the cold pack on top.  Place your hand under the layer and next to your dog’s skin/fur frequently to make sure the temperature is cool, but not icy cold.  This should be comfortable for the dog and provide pain relief and control of swelling.  If the dog is shivering or in any discomfort, discontinue use of cold until you are able to reach the vet.  Avoid using cold with a dog that has a sensitivity to cold weather, nerve damage causing a lack of sensation or poor circulation.

Before we leave the subject of cold

Let me introduce a unique product that offers “cooling” for injuries as well as simple simply keeping cool in the warm temps: cool products by SherBert Stuff.  I’ve been using these in various forms: rolls, packs, and wraps for animal patients as well as myself! They need an initial soaking in cool water and stay cool for several days.  Once they dry out, pre-soaking is needed to re-activate the cooling mechanism in the interior beads.  Do not place these packs in the refrigerator and let them air dry between uses.

Using heat/thermotherapy

Physiological effects of heat therapy
  • elevated temperature of tissues
  • blood vessels dilation
Therapeutic effects of heat therapy
  • increased blood flow to treated areas
  • increased supply of nutrients and immune cells
  • muscle relaxation
When Do I Use Heat versus Cold? : A Tale (or Tail) Of Two Temps! (Part II)
Gracie’s HipHug

Thermotherapy recommendations

Heat is beneficial for use when swelling is no longer present or is only minimal and when pain is no longer intense. It can also help to relax tight muscles and relieve sore arthritic joints.

Thermotherapy can be applied using various commercial hot packs filled with sand or silicone, gel, beads, ground cornhusks, and buckwheat. These are heated by hot water immersion or microwave ovens, and are considered to be “moist heat”.

Moist versus dry heat

Moist heat penetrates deeper and is more effective for orthopedic conditions than dry heat.

Examples of dry heat are electric heating pads, heat lamps or blowers, and wraps with metal discs.

I don’t recommend using electrical heating pads for pets unless you have no other option and only using the very lowest setting with constant on-site supervision. Some heating pads have iron filings or small discs that produce heat by contact with the body, and an oxidation reaction occurs, producing heat for several hours. These can be used but only with your dog in a confined setting where you can continually monitor and supervise.

Most heating packs are applied for 15-20 minutes, twice per day.

Padding may be required to prevent burns, depending on the amount and length of your dog’s coat.  The heat should feel warm but never hot.

Heat therapy contraindications

Here are contraindications for heat, where heat should never be used:

  • during the first 48 hours of an acute traumatic injury
  • during states of hemorrhage
  • in the presence of blood clots
  • tumors or malignant tissue
  • open wounds
  • areas of numbness
  • areas that feel warm or hot to your touch

Which therapy to choose when in doubt

If you are still in doubt and faced with a situation where your dog needs immediate care, cold is usually the safest choice.

If applied according to the above methods and guidelines, heat will either help or not cause harm.

Products I use

  • Medibeads Microwave heat packs (bead filled)
  • Earth Therapeutics Anti-Stress Neck Pillow (heat) (made for humans but works well for canines)
  • Hip Hug (heat, rice filled)
  • Simple Solution Therapy Glove for Pets (gel filled) (Hot or Cold)
  • SherBertStuff Cool Products

Related articles:
Should I Use Ice or Heat, Doc?

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

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