Dog heat therapy, dog treatment, dog rehab, dog rehabilitation, dog osteopathy

My Dog is in Pain: When Should I Apply Heat?

The application of heat to an injured area is a common treatment modality in our world, and it can be useful for your dog too.

Treating pain with heat can be extremely effective for a number of different conditions and injuries. The tricky part is knowing which situations call for hot, and what calls for cold.

Should I Use Heat or Ice?

As a general rule of thumb:

  • Use heat for muscle pain or stiffness (e.g. arthritis, tight muscles).
  • Use ice for acute injuries and pain, along with inflammation and swelling.

You can also use heat therapy as a tool to help warm up before exercise and / or rehabilitation (e.g. stretches).

How Heat Therapy Works:

Heat therapy works by improving the circulation and blood flow to a localized area. Increasing the temperature of the area even slightly can decrease pain and muscle spasms, and increase muscle flexibility.

You only need a 1-2ºC increase in tissue temperature to increase local tissue metabolism by 10-15%. This will take approximately 10mins with a hot pack to achieve. The resultant increase in blood flow facilitates tissue healing by supplying proteins, nutrients, and oxygen to the site of injury.

You don’t want to apply heat to an acute injury or inflammed area. In these situations you don’t want to increase local tissue metabolism as you don’t want more swelling. Ice Therapy would be more appropriate.

Types of Heat Therapy:

There are two main types of heat therapy:

  • Dry heat e.g. heat pads, dry heat packs (hot water bottle), sauna.
  • Moist heat e.g. steamed towels, moist heat packs (wheat pack), warm bath.

Both types of heat therapy aim for “warm” as the ideal temperature NOT “hot.”

How to Apply Heat Therapy:

When applying heat therapy, you can choose to use local, regional, or whole body treatment.

  • Local application is best for small areas of pain, like one stiff muscle. You could use a small heated gel pack, hot water bottle, or wheat bag if you only want to treat an injury locally.
  • Regional application is best for more widespread pain or stiffness (e.g. arthritis of the hip), and could be achieved with a steamed towel, large heating pad, or heat wraps.
  • Full body treatment would include options like a warm bath. 

Heat should be applied for 15-30mins with equal time off.

Remember your dog can’t tell you if it’s too hot. You should be able to comfortably hold the heat source.

Always pay close attention to electric heating pads to ensure they don’t overheat.


The most important precaution is burns from overheating the source. It should be warm to touch NOT hot.

There are certain cases where heat therapy should not be used. If the area in question is either bruised or swollen (or both), it may be better to use cold therapy. Heat therapy also shouldn’t be applied to an area with an open wound. 

Dog’s with certain pre-existing conditions (heart disease, diabetes, skin conditions, cancer, and pregnancy) should not use heat therapy without first discussing it with your Vet.


Heat therapy can be used for reducing pain, muscle spasms and joint stiffness (e.g. arthritis). It should be applied for 20-30mins with equal time off. The heat pack should be warm NOT hot. Do not use in acute injuries or inflammed areas.

The article above does not replace the advice of your Vet or Canine Rehab Professional. If you haven’t already, please make an appointment with your Vet or Canine Rehab Professional so they have the opportunity to assess, diagnose, and treat your dog’s condition.

If you dog has an acute injury or is post surgical you may find my article on Ice Therapy beneficial.

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