Just as for humans, physiotherapy can play a role in helping your pet return to physical fitness following an injury or surgery. Physiotherapy helps to maintain your pets’ joint and muscle movement, reduces the level of muscle wastage, and limits the loss of fitness while your pet recovers. It can also help reduce pain around the injury both in the short and long-term.

There are several steps to physiotherapy – most of which can easily be performed at home.

Cold Therapy

This type of physiotherapy is useful in the period 12-48 hours post-operatively. Cold packs are placed over a sterile, water impermeable dressing and kept in place for 5-10mins, two to three times per day. You should NEVER leave these in place for more than 30mins or swelling may occur. This treatment causes a local hypothermia (“low temperature”) resulting in a mild analgesia (pain relief), reduced swelling and relaxation of skeletal muscles.

Heat Therapy

Heat therapy can be started from 48-72 hours post-operatively. Heat packs are placed over the dressing for 10-20mins, two to three times per day. You MUST ensure that heat packs are insulated from the skin by placing towels or similar materials between the pack and the skin – otherwise you can cause local burns. The local hyperthermia (“high temperature”) produces analgesia, mild sedation, an increased local metabolism to encourage healing, and increased blood flow to the area which helps reduce swelling, provide essential nutrients and remove waste products.


There are several steps to this therapy. Stroking – use light strokes of uniform pressure, working from the periphery to the centre of the affected area, at a rate of 15 strokes per minute. This accustoms your pet to being touched and also produces a mild sedative effect (just think of how you respond to a massage!). Kneading – this involves picking up, and then rolling and compressing, the skin and muscle. Always knead the tissue in the direction of the heart. Use firm but gentle pressure – you don’t want to hurt your pet. Friction – this is the rapid movement of small areas of skin in a circular motion. Move each small area 3-4 times before moving onto the adjacent area. Apply a moderate level of pressure. This action will help loosen the scar tissue and adhesions, and help your pet absorb any extra fluid that is collecting in the area. Stroking – repeat the stroking action to maintain the relaxation and sedative effects. Each massage session should last 15-20mins in length, and be performed once to twice a day. The benefits of massage are also numerous – increased blood flow through tissues, stretching of tendons (to maintain their function and range of movement), and, in combination with passive and active exercise, massage will help reduce the level of muscle wastage.

Passive Exercise

This involves bending and straightening each joint, through the normal pain-free range of motion. This can be started three to four days post-operatively and should be performed following heat therapy and massage. Starting with the toes and working up, each joint should be manipulated 5-10 times, two to three times per day. Passive exercise maintains the normal range of motion of joints, prevents contracture and muscle wasting, increases blood flow in the limbs, and increases sensory awareness (especially important in neurological cases).

Active Exercise

While passive exercise involves you doing all the work for your pet, active exercise means that your pet is moving their limbs themselves. You must always support your pet’s body (e.g. a towel sling around the tummy) to prevent them from slipping over and further injuring themselves. Remember to keep encouragingyour patient! Active exercise helps to improve co-ordination, cardiovascular and neurological function and muscle strength.


Swimming is a great form of exercise for animals recovering from surgery. The buoyancy of water means that swimming provides a low-impact but effective form of work-out. The heat conduction properties of water prevent your pet from overheating, and provided the water is warm (aim for about 30 degrees Celsius), helps to relax muscles to prevent stiffness and pain.Hydrotherapy sessions should last 5-30 minutes each, depending on your pet’s fitness and level of recovery. You must not swim your pet until after the stitches have been removed or the wound may breakdown or become infected. If you wish to try this form of therapy, you must discuss it with a veterinarian first. There are several contraindications for this form of treatment – these include cardiac or respiratory disease. You must also be very careful as to how you conduct these sessions to prevent stress or injury to your pet. Hydrotherapy is a tool that may possibly be conducted at home, but larger pets may need to be taken to hydrotherapy facilities.

If you are interested in performing physiotherapy on your pet, please ask a veterinarian to demonstrate these techniques to you. When used correctly, physiotherapy can not only speed your pet’s recovery but also strengthen the bond between you and your friend.