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Natural treatment for post-exercise stiffness in dogs

How to treat dogs with muscle stiffness after exercise?

17 Oct, 2019

After strenuous exercise, dogs and humans can exhibit muscle stiffness, fatigue and pain. We may notice that our dogs are reluctant to move or have difficulty getting up from resting after a long run or swim. This is particularly the case, when the dog is recovering from a soft tissue injury or has a joint condition.

Human and animal studies have found several possible mechanisms for muscle stiffness, fatigue and pain following exercise. These may include the following:

  • Pain and inflammation – One possible mechanism for the symptoms of pain and swelling is that strenuous exercise may cause localised areas of damage to muscle fibres. Muscle damage initiates an inflammatory response involving the production of pro-inflammatory cytokines in muscle fibres and alterations to leukocyte receptor expression. Muscle fibre damage may also sensitise muscle nociceptors resulting in the perception of pain.
  • Stiffness – Muscle stiffness may be a result of disruption of the non-contractile part of the muscle cell membrane and connective tissue which leads to passive tension in muscle. At rest, cross bridges between actin and myosin filaments in the muscle form, resulting in passive muscle tension.
  • Muscle fatigue – Muscle fatigue is thought to occur due to the reduction in energy reserves i.e. substrate of muscle glycogen. Reduction in the muscle’s energy reserves results in acidosis, leading to concentration of catabolites in the muscle tissue.
  • Loss of function (i.e. skeletal muscle strength loss) – Loss of function occurs when there is a decrease in the muscle’s power generation and disturbance in the transmission of nerve impulses.

How to treat post-exercise muscle stiffness naturally?

Appropriate exercise

The most effective way to treat post-exercise loss of muscle function is to exercise the dog appropriately to avoid loss of muscle function. For dogs recovering from an injury, ensure the exercise is appropriate to the stage of rehabilitation to avoid re-injury or affect healing.

Dogs unaccustomed to strenuous exercise or exercising under extreme conditions (like heat or cold) are more likely to experience muscle stiffness, fatigue, loss of muscle strength, and pain. Conditioning a dog to the type, duration and intensity of exercise is important to avoid loss of muscle function post-exercise.

Massage therapy

When a dog is experiencing post-exercise muscle damage, massage therapy is effective for reducing muscle stiffness, pain and fatigue.

Muscle stiffness

A study measuring the effects of massage on restoring muscle strength in rabbits post-exercise, showed a significant level of recovery of peak torque in animals that received massage immediately after exercise and 48 hours post-exercise.

Similarly, a human study measuring the effects of massage on muscle stiffness showed a decrease in muscle stiffness. Possible mechanisms to explain how massage therapy can decrease post-exercise muscle stiffness are:

  • Massage decreases motor neuron excitability by inhibiting the local reflex and providing a sense of relaxation.
  • The mechanical effects of massage (i.e. pressure and stretching muscle fibres) breaks the stable cross bridges between actin and myosin filaments that form when muscles are at rest. When the cross bridges are broken, the viscoelastic properties of muscles are restored.
  • Massage reduces muscle stiffness by increasing intramuscular temperature. Some studies suggest the combined effect of breaking cross-bridges and increasing in muscle temperature responsible for reducing muscle stiffness.

Inflammation and pain

Massage is believed to provide pain relief through a number of mechanisms including psychological, physiological, and neurological.

Psychological mechanisms for massage’s effect on pain posit that physical contact increases an animal’s sense of wellbeing, thereby influencing the perception of pain.

The physiological effects of massage on pain may be due to the release of endorphins or mediation of the inflammatory response. In the study of triathletes receiving massage post-race, participants reported a decreased perception of pain which was attributed to to a release of endorphins and elimination of catabolites.

Mediating inflammation may be another way that massage addresses post-exercise muscle pain. In a study of the effect of massage in animals, the wet weight of muscles of animals that did not receive a massage post-exercise was significantly heavier than in animals that were massaged. In this study, the weight of the muscle was taken has an indicator of oedema. Thus, the study concluded that massage had a positive effect on reducing oedema and inflammation.

Further, this same study showed a decrease in neutrophil and macrophage infiltration in the muscles of animals that received a massage treatment indicating the anti-inflammatory effect of massage.

Finally, a neurological mechanism for reducing the perception of pain is often attributed to massage therapy. Studies in humans and animals indicate that massage has an effect of blocking noxious stimulus.


Massage therapy has been shown to have a positive effect on reducing muscle fatigue after strenuous exercise. Massage is thought to reduce muscle fatigue by increasing blood and lymphatic flow. Increasing circulation contributes to the elimination of catabolites from muscles and in so doing possibly reduces the sensation of fatigue in humans.

In a study of the effect of post-race massage on triathletes, the participants’ perceived fatigue scores dropped markedly post-massage. It is thought that the positive effect on the fatigue scores is related to increased localised blood circulation. Increased circulation is attributed to either the mechanical effect of massage or an increase in muscle temperature. Both mechanisms aid in the removal of metabolic waste from the tissues.

Rest vs massage therapy for post-exercise recovery

Frequently after strenuous exercise, we think that rest alone with allow our dogs muscles to adequately recover. However, a study of triathletes compared post-race massage and rest to reduce muscle pain and fatigue. The experimental group received a 7 minute massage while the control group rested in a sitting position for the same time period. This study concluded that massage was more effective than rest for the recovery from perceived pain and fatigue.

The best way to avoid post- exercise stiffness and fatigue in our dogs is to ensure they are conditioned to the type, intensity and duration of exercise we are asking them to undertake. In cases, where the dog has exercised strenuously and exhibits some loss of muscle of function, then massage therapy is beneficial in treating fatigue, pain, inflammation and muscle stiffness.

Full Stride provides remedial canine massage treatments to maintain muscle function and keep dogs active and pain free. I offer treatments in my home based clinic on Brisbane’s northside. Home visits are also available within a service area.

Until next time, enjoy your dogs.


Chua, Y. K., Kawabata, M., Burns, S., Cai, C., & Kong, P. W. (2016, November). EFFECTS OF MASSAGE ON POST-EXERCISE MUSCLE STIFFNESS: PRELIMINARY FINDINGS. In ISBS-Conference Proceedings Archive (Vol. 34, No. 1).

Eriksson Crommert, M., Lacourpaille, L., Heales, L. J., Tucker, K., & Hug, F. (2015). Massage induces an immediate, albeit short‐term, reduction in muscle stiffness. Scandinavian journal of medicine & science in sports, 25(5), e490-e496.

Haas, C., Butterfield, T. A., Abshire, S., Zhao, Y., Zhang, X., Jarjoura, D., & Best, T. M. (2013). Massage timing affects postexercise muscle recovery and inflammation in a rabbit model. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 45(6), 1105.

Nunes, G. S., Bender, P. U., de Menezes, F. S., Yamashitafuji, I., Vargas, V. Z., & Wageck, B. (2016). Massage therapy decreases pain and perceived fatigue after long-distance Ironman triathlon: a randomised trial. Journal of physiotherapy, 62(2), 83-87.

Proske, U. (2005). Muscle tenderness from exercise: mechanisms?. The Journal of physiology, 564(Pt 1), 1.

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