Thursday, December 12, 2013

Should I Use Ice or Heat, Doc?

by Daniel Beatty, DVM

A client with an injured dog is leaving the office after a 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), but it certainly seems that most people are confused on when to use heat or cold. Well I am going to tell you and it is simple.

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 keep it simple method – 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, because although both of these therapies are relatively safe, it is possible to do more harm to your dog if you use either incorrectly especially using 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 to help with healing and prevent the soft tissue from tightening.

One last point – how about a dog with 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.


Daniel Beatty, DVM (Dr. Dan) is an integrative veterinarian that believes in a holistic approach to medicine and wellness. He uses the best of both the allopathic and the holistic worlds of medicine to maintain a proper balance to health and movement for his canine and equine patients. 

He also blogs at Dog Kinetics and loves to teach pet owners his ideas through blogging and webinars.

Articles by Dr. Beatty:
What Acupuncture Did For Intervertebral Disk Disease (IVDD) Problems With Canine Over-Vaccination 
Alternative Treatments For Discoid Lupus Erythematosus (DLE) in Dogs 

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