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Cold packs for dogs

Cold packs for dogs

05 Jan, 2017

Just before Christmas, my mother was diagnosed with torn ligaments and a fracture in her knee. Her doctors recommended the joint be immobilised and that she apply ice to the joint. The ice was recommended to help manage pain and reduce swelling. We are all familiar with the effects of cold treatment for injuries in humans but how does it work and is it OK to treat our dogs with ice packs?

What is a cold pack for? How does cold treatment work?

When a muscle is damaged, the cells fracture and their contents “spill” into the space between the cells. When this occurs, the body doesn’t recognise the substance and responds to it as a toxin by initiating an inflammatory response. The inflammatory response increases blood flow to the injury site to neutralise the toxins. Excessive amounts of blood flowing to the area can result in an oedema (build-up of fluids in the spaces between the cells beneath the skin and other cavities of the body) which causes swelling and pain.

When cold is applied to the dog’s skin, the capillaries, lymph channels, and muscle tissue contained in the dermis constrict. This reduces blood flow thus slowing the body’s inflammatory response, reducing swelling and the likelihood of an oedema forming at the site of the injury.

Cold treatment also decreases nerve conduction speed. This has the effect of reducing the perception of pain and the occurrence of muscle spasms. When cooled the muscle spindle receptors and Golgi tendon organ receptors in muscles fire more slowly, the rate of neural transmission from the muscle spindle decreases thereby reducing muscle spasms.

When cold is removed from the skin, the capillaries expand allowing blood to return to the outer parts of the body. This reaction stimulates the circulation to that part of the body, raises the temperature, increases skin activity, raises blood pressure, contracts the muscles, and stimulates the nervous system in the area.

When should I apply cold treatment to my dog?

Cold treatments can be used in a number of situations.

  • Acute conditions – If your dog is injured, please see the precautions below and if safe, apply ice to the injured area within 72 hours of the injury occurring.
  • Chronic conditions like tendonitis, arthritis – Cold treatment helps reduce swelling, reduces the occurrence of muscle spasm, and reduces pain.
  • Post-massage or exercise – Apply cold treatment after your dog has had a deep massage. During a rehabilitation programme, cold treatment can also be applied post-exercise. In these cases, cold treatment reduces the possibility of secondary inflammation in the muscles. It also has a beneficial “flushing” effect of stimulating arterial and venous circulation to the area when the cold is removed thus delivering nutrients and oxygen to the skin and surrounding soft tissues.

How to apply cold treatment to a dog?

There are a number of options for applying cold treatments to a dog depending on the size of the injured area and the type of treatment your dog is comfortable with you applying. Some options are:

  • Commercial cold packs – These are the cold packs that contain a gel like substance and can be purchased for human or animal use. They come in a range of sizes and configurations and can be wrapped or strapped around the affected area.
  • Homemade cold treatments – Place crushed ice and little water in a plastic bag, wrap it in a towel and apply to your dog. For dogs that don’t accept ice, you can try applying a cold damp towel that you have placed in the refrigerator.

How long should I apply cold to my dog?

Ideally, apply cold treatments for about 2 – 3 minutes on short coated dogs or up to 5 minutes for longer coated dogs.

When first applying cold treatments, give your dog time to acclimatise to the treatment. Initially, apply the treatment for a couple of seconds, give your dog a treat while the cold treatment is on their body, and remove the cold. Repeat several times, gradually building the duration that the cold treatment remains on the dog’s body. Ensure that cold treatments are a positive experience for your dog or they won’t allow you to do it again.

Is cold treatment safe for all dogs?

Precautions need to be taken when using cold treatment particularly around open wounds and fractures, when nerve impairment or damage has occurred, if a dog has a condition where changes in blood pressure may be a concern or in very young or old dogs.

If considering using cold treatment, ensure you have a veterinary diagnosis of your dog’s condition and clearance that cold treatment may be applied. For diagnosed soft tissue conditions, a certified canine myofunctional (massage) therapist can advise you on the use of cold treatment.

For more information about cold treatments, please feel free to contact me or send me a message via the Full Stride Facebook page. .

Until next time, enjoy your dogs.


Hourdebaight, Jean-Pierre (2004), Canine Massage: A complete reference manual 2nd edition, Dogwise Publishing, Wenatchee WA, USA

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