When Do I Use Heat versus Cold? : A Tale (or Tail) Of Two Temps! (Part I)

by Susan E. Davis, PT 

It’s all about guiding and empowering you to help your pet avoid injury, provide practical solutions and achieve rapid restoration of health and function!   

It is a question commonly asked of physical therapists everywhere: when do I use heat, or should I use cold?  How do I know which one to use? The answer is…….”it depends…!

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

1. Using Cold

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

Cold applications constrict the blood vessels, slow cellular metabolism and decrease sensory nerve conduction.  Thus, cold treatment reduces inflammation, controls bleeding, decreases pain, and reduces redness and warmth.

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 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 pillow case, 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 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, re-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.

Susan E. Davis (Sue) is a licensed Physical Therapist with over 30 years of practice in the human field, who transitioned into the animal world after taking courses at the UT Canine Rehabilitation program.  She is located in Red Bank, New Jersey.

She has been providing PT services to dogs and other animals through her entity Joycare Onsite, LLC in pet’s homes and in vet clinics since 2008.

She also provides pro bono services at the Monmouth County SPCA in Eatontown, NJ.  Sue is the proud “dog mommy” to Penelope, a miniature Dachshund with “attitude”.  For more information see her website www.joycareonsite.com , or follow on Twitter @animalPTsue.

Sue is also the author of a fantastic book on physical therapy, Physical Therapy And Rehabilitation For Animals: A Guide For The Consumer.  

Physical therapy can do so many great things for your dog. Understanding all the possibilities physical therapy can offer will change your dog's life. This book definitely belongs on the shelf of every dog lover.

Articles by Susan E. Davis:
Functional Strengthening Exercises: the What, Why and How
One Thing Leads To Another: Why The Second ACL Often Goes Too
Compensation: An Attempt To Restore Harmony
Paring Down to the Canine Core
Canine Massage: Every Dog ‘Kneads’ It”
Photon Power: Can Laser Therapy Help Your Dog?  
Physical Therapy in the Veterinary World  
Reiki: Is it real? 
Dog Lessons: Cooper  
The Essentials Of Canine Injury Prevention: 7 Tips For Keeping Your Dog Safer 
It's Not Just Walking, It's Therapy! 
Treatment And Prevention Of Canine Intervertebral Disc Disease (Part I)
Treatment And Prevention Of Canine Intervertebral Disc Disease (Part II Physical Therapy)
Range Of Motion: It’s A Matter Of Degree…
The Weight Of Water And How It Helps Dogs 
By Land or By Sea? A Comparison of Canine Treadmills 
Unraveling The Mystery Of Fascia And Myofascial Trigger Points (Part I)
Unraveling The Mystery Of Fascia And Myofascial Trigger Points (Part II) 
Scar Tissue: Is it Too Much of a Good Thing? 
Physical Therapy Tip Of The Month: Ramps! 
Physical Therapy Tip Of The Month: Indoor Duo Dog Exercises!
Physical Therapy Tip Of The Month: Best Practices After Your Dog’s Surgery
Physical Therapy Tip Of The Month: Ideas to Chew on - Can Physical Therapy Help with my Dog’s Digestive Problems? 


  1. Excellent advice. I didn't know that was how you made a slushy ice pack. Thanks for the tip!

  2. I did not know this. We haven't been in a situation where we need to use cold or hot (or so we thought). I wonder if Sydney would have benefited from this when she hurt her knee.

    1. Probably, I think most acute injuries might benefit from cold compresses. Jasmine had those prescribed post-op as well.


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