Arthritis in dogs: dog massage and exercise therapy

Does dog massage and exercise therapy help with arthritis in dogs is a question we at Paws4Paws get asked often asked. It is commonly known that arthritis affects the joint, so how can massage and exercise therapy be beneficial? Let us explain.

Arthritis in dogs is complex and affects the whole body

According to a 2018 research study, arthritis is the most commonly diagnosed joint disease in veterinary practice. Technically, arthritis means the ‘inflammation of the joint’, however, the disease is much more complex than that. It is a common misconception that arthritis affects only the joint cartilage. In reality, arthritis affects all structures within and around the joint including muscles, ligaments and tendons. If left unmanaged, it can even have an impact on areas of the body that are far away from the actual arthritic joint. This happens when your dog starts offloading their painful joint(s) which leads to gait and postural changes. In the early stages, these changes are subtle and often not visible to the untrained eye. If not addressed, these gait and postural adaptations can become primary issues in and of themselves as a result of changes in the soft tissue. In turn, changes in soft tissue can result in unprotected joints which can lead to pain and further damage. I highly recommend two websites for anyone who is interested in learning more about arthritis in dogs: Care and Canine Arthritis Management.

How can dog massage and exercise therapy help with arthritis in dogs?

Dog massage will not cure your dog’s arthritis but it can provide pain relief, improve mobility and flexibility, and reduce muscle tension. Further, if hands on massage treatments are combined with passive range of motion exercises, stretching, low impact strengthening exercises and some environmental modifications, you will most certainly see improved outcomes in managing your dog’s arthritis and slow down the degenerative process.

Remedial dog massage treatment

It is a common misconception that arthritis is confined to the affected joint. In reality, arthritis is much more complex and in fact affects the whole body. What does this mean? Imagine your dog has arthritis in one of their knees and their joint is painful and stiff. Your dog will naturally offload the affected limb and shift weight away from the painful joint. This means that other areas of your dog’s body are now recruited to compensate for the painful joint. Your dog will shift weight onto the other hind leg as well as the front to avoid pain. This offloading and weight shifting will have two consequences: 

  • your dog will lose strength and muscle mass in the affected leg which is detrimental as strong muscles are crucial to support their arthritic joint
  • your dog will overwork other areas of their body such as their back, forelimbs, shoulder area and neck which, over time, will lead to pain and dysfunction in the soft tissue (muscles), and in the worst case scenario will lead to lameness

Remedial dog massage therapy involves soft tissue manipulation and myofascial release in order to rehabilitate those areas that have been compensating for your dog’s achy joints. Ideally, your canine therapist will also address those areas that are underused by using low impact strengthening exercises to prevent muscle loss, or gain muscle mass if muscle wastage has already occurred, in order to support your dog’s arthritic joints. 

Low impact strengthening exercises are crucial in managing arthritis in dogs

Exercise therapy is a crucial part in the management of your dog’s arthritis. We know that muscles can waste away (atrophy) as a result of reduced physical activity. The simple act of shifting weight over to other areas of your dog’s body to offload an arthritic achy joint is essentially a reduction in physical activity of this particular arthritic limb. In the early stages of the onset of arthritis, weight shifting might be so subtle that it is invisible to the untrained eye. After all, the mere fact that dogs have three other legs to rely on, instead of one as we humans do, makes it a lot easier to ‘conceal’ subtle offloading.    

When muscle atrophy progresses, it typically presents with decreased strength and a reduced ability to perform daily activities. A 2008 study has shown a correlation between muscle atrophy and joint degeneration which essentially means that joints will degenerate even quicker when there is muscle atrophy because the supportive structure of a strong musculature is diminished. Unfortunately, it is a bit of a vicious cycle and if not addressed, your dog’s mobility, strength and joints will degenerate at a faster pace than you might expect. Fortunately there are many low impact strengthening exercised your canine therapist can teach you to do with your dog at home. 

Passive range of motion exercises and stretching

A 2020 study on knee osteoarthritis in humans and the impact of passive range of motion exercises and stretching has shown a significant improvement in patients’ range of motion and gait. Unlike active range of motion exercises which are actively performed by the patient (= your dog), passive range of motion exercises are performed by a canine therapist on your dog. Passive range of motion exercises are gentle, repetitive movements of a joint through extension and flexion. These movements do not put any stress on your dog’s joint and have the effect of nourishing the joint cartilage, maintaining joint function, decreasing joint stiffness, and increasing flexibility. Similarly, gentle stretching techniques in dogs with arthritis have shown to significantly increase their range of motion (see 2007 study here).  

Environmental and activity modification

Environmental and activity modification is a vital part of managing your dog’s arthritis. Slipping and sliding on slippery floors, jumping in and out of a car, or on and off a couch, fetching the ball in the park, and overly long weekend walks are all BIG NO-NOs if your dog has arthritic joints. There is a risk of what we call an ‘arthritis flare’ which occurs when there is too much load on the arthritic joint. Read 5 Ways to Better Manage Your Dog’s Arthritis in which we talk about environmental and activity modification in more detail. 

Get in touch to discuss your dog’s arthritis

If you would like to know more about how Paws4Paws can help manage your dog’s arthritis with massage and exercise therapy, please contact us through our contact form or via email to sandra@paws4paws.com.au and we will be in touch.