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Can massage help my dog recover from surgery?

17 Jan, 2018

Depending on the type of surgery, massage including passive range of motion and gentle stretching, may help a dog recover and get back on their feet quickly. Massage therapy meets a number of goals in a dog’s post-surgical rehabilitation plan. Some ways that massage therapy can aid your dog’s healing are listed below.

Goals of post-surgery massage treatments for dogs

To reduce inflammation and swelling around the surgery site

After the acute phase (72 hours after surgery) has passed, massage is effective in stimulating venous and lymphatic return. Stimulating venous and lymphatic return flushes the fluids surrounding the wound and aids in removing anaesthesia residue and mediators of inflammation which accumulate during the acute phase of healing.

Maintaining good circulation is also important for dogs that are immobile or require crate rest post-surgery.

To assist manage pain

Massage has a role in helping to manage your dog’s post-operative pain. It is thought the mechanical nature of massage inhibits the transmission of noxious stimuli and in so doing alters the dog’s perception of pain.

Massage also has been shown to produce a relaxation response which helps human and canine patients rest and heal post-surgery.

In dogs with reduced circulation through immobilisation after surgery, dehydration or due to a medical condition, pain can be caused by myofascial defects. When layers of fascia are adhered and do not slide over another, it can result in pain in distal nerve endings. Defective sliding of the fascia can disrupt the axoplasmic flow to nerve endings farthest from the vertebral column which causes pain. The mechanical stresses and compressions of massage on the fascia, eases tension and restores its elasticity to allow fascial layers to slide normally. When the fascia is released, neural stimuli are processed normally and pain sensations are reduced or eliminated.

To improve or maintain range of motion

This is particularly important for dogs recovering from tendon or ligament type operations. However it is also important for dogs that will be immobilised post-surgery. Gentle passive range of motion exercises aid joint healing and help to restore joint function. It can also realign muscle fibres damaged from the surgical procedure.

The dog’s fascia facilitates normal range of motion. When fascial layers are adhered and not sliding properly joint range of motion can be restricted. Massage stimulates the circulatory system to draw oxygen and nutrients to lubricate the fascia, connective tissues, muscles and other soft tissues. Increased circulation hydrates the fascia and massage compressions improve its elasticity so joint movement is unrestricted and muscular function restored.

Gentle stretching is another useful technique to restore joint range of motion. Stretching (once the soft tissues are warmed) improves the tone and elasticity of ligaments, tendons and joint capsules. Improved elasticity in these structures assist in better coordinated movement.

To limit muscle atrophy

Massage eases muscle tension so muscles can function normally and maintain their tone. When a muscle is injured or overloaded and remains contracted, the flow of motor nerve impulses can be impeded. Without sensory nerve impulses the muscle fibres will degenerate. The pressure and rhythm of massage can relieve muscle tension and restore normal flow of nerve impulses.

Combined with massage, passive range of motion also plays a role in limiting muscle atrophy. By moving the dog’s joints through a normal range of motion, joint function and proprioception can be restored which can aid neural pathway development or repair and in so doing address muscle atrophy.

To release compensatory muscle tension

After surgery affecting a limb, it is likely the dog will not weight bear evenly in the initial stages of recovery. To compensate for their inability to bear weight on the affected limb, the dog redistributes their weight. Redistributing the overloads other muscles in the dog’s body. For instance a dog will shift their weight to the opposing back leg and the front legs after cranial cruciate ligament repair surgery. The muscles in these limbs, the back and neck become overloaded and tense. Left untreated overloaded muscles become tense and often develop spasms from remaining contracted to compensate for the altered weight bearing capacity of the affected limb .

Left untreated the post-surgical dog can develop pain or even incur a muscle injury from compensatory muscle tension. Regular short massage, stretching and joint mobilisation sessions after surgery can address and relieve compensatory muscle tension.

Post-surgery recovery plan

Massage therapy offers a range of benefits to help dogs recover from surgery. Combined with strengthening and coordination activities, it can help restore a dog to normal activities.

For planned surgery, it is important to discuss your dog’s post-surgery recovery plan with your vet and surgeon. They can advise, based on your dog’s age, health status and type of surgery the following in terms of post-surgery rehabilitation plan:

  • Timings – when you can start the recovery activities and the milestones or phases of recovery.
  • Type of activity and what you need to achieve from the activity.
  • Frequency and how this may change through the recovery phases.
  • Intensity of recovery activities and how this will change through the recovery phases.

Where massage therapy is included in your dog’s surgical recovery plan, Full Stride offers in home and clinic based treatments in Brisbane. I would be happy to discuss your dog’s post-surgical recovery plan and how massage may help your dog’s recovery.


Adams, R., White, B., & Beckett, C. 2010. The effects of massage therapy on pain management in the acute care setting. International journal of therapeutic massage & bodywork, 3(1), 4.

Bordoni, B & Zanier, E 2014 “Clinical and symptomatological reflections: the fascial system” Journal of Multidisciplinary Healthcare v7

McGowan, C. 2016. Animal physiotherapy: assessment, treatment and rehabilitation of animals. John Wiley & Sons.

Millis, D.L, Levine, D & Taylor R.A (ed) 2004 Canine Rehabilitation and Physical Therapy, Elsevier Inc, Missouri USA

Robertson, Julia 2010, The complete dog massage manual, Veloce Publishing Limited, Dorset UK