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How to treat muscle spasms in dogs

Muscle spasms in dogs and how to treat them

23 May, 2017

When you touch your dog, does their skin quiver under your hand or can you see their skin twitching? This could be a muscle spasm.

What are muscles spasms and what causes them?

Muscle spasms occur in dog’s muscles when the muscle is injured or has been overloaded. When muscle fibres are damaged, the nerve endings are irritated become highly excitable. The high rate of motor nerve impulses cause the muscle fibres to contract indefinitely and the muscle is not able to relax.

Muscle spasms cause:

  • pain and inflammation at the site of the damaged muscle fibres
  • reduced muscle function and movement
  • build up of lactic acid in the muscle

Pain – spasm – pain cycle

A muscle locked in a spasm produces a sudden, tight and intense pain. The pain can range in intensity from slight to agonising. When touched a muscle in spasm will typically feel hard and the dog will be sensitive in the area. In short haired dogs, you may see a twitch beneath the skin in some cases. A spasm can last a few seconds to 15 minutes or longer, and may recur until it is treated or the muscle heals.

Reduced function

A muscle in spasm has decreased function and capability because it cannot fully contract or relax. Decreased function can cause the dog to adopt an abnormal posture and movement which in turn can cause compensatory muscle strain.

As an example, I recently treated a dog who had slipped on wet grass and fallen. As he slipped his front leg had slid laterally (to the side). The fall had strained the dog’s pectorals and brachiocephalic muscles in the chest along with the deltoid and triceps in the shoulder. He was adopting an abnormal posture by only toe touch weight bearing on the affected leg. The dog’s movement was also affected. When he walked his range of movement in the shoulder was limited. On palpation, I could feel spasms in the chest and forelimb. The dog was very sensitive to touch in these areas.

Build up of lactic acid in the muscle

Muscle spasms compromise the function of the dog’s lymphatic system which is responsible for venous return. Venous return is required to clear waste from the muscle fibres. Without good circulation the muscle fibres become congested with metabolic waste including lactic acid which can accumulate in the muscle and further reduce the muscle’s capability.

How to treat muscle spasms in dogs?

Depending on the cause and severity of muscle spasms, there are number of treatment options.

Massage therapy

Massaging the Golgi tendon organ receptors in the affected muscle’s tendon of insertion stretches the nerve endings. The nerve endings send impulses to the brain to initiate the body’s reflex to relax the corresponding motor nerve responsible for the spasm. Depending on the severity of the spasm, it can release quickly in a couple of minutes or several hours after a treatment.

When a muscle has been in spasm for a long time, it may take several treatments to release them fully. Spasms are typically painful for the dog, so their willingness to allow you to work on the spasm needs to be considered.

As well as targeting the nerves endings in the tendons, massage therapy will reduce the muscle tone and loosen the fibres in tense muscles to stop the pain – spasm – pain cycle.


Gently stretching the muscle in spasm, stimulates the muscle spindle and causes a reflex contraction which relaxes the antagonist muscle – similar to massaging the muscle tendons. Stretching injured muscles must be performed gently and when the dog is relaxed and co-operative.

Passive range of motion (PROM)

PROM techniques combined with trigger point therapy can release muscle spasms and restore the dog’s full range of movement in an affected joint. For more information on the benefits of passive range of motion for dogs please see

Cold treatment

Cooling the area with a muscle spasm reduces the excitability of the Golgi tendon organ receptors and the muscle spindle receptors to ease the muscle spasm. Initially, when cold is applied it will have an excitory effect on the nerve endings but as the temperature decreases the spasm activity slows. For more information on cold treatment, please see

Full Stride provides canine rehabilitation services including remedial canine massage, exercise therapy and nutritional advice. For more information about my services please click here

Until next time, enjoy your dogs.

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

Lambert, L. 2016. “Muscle spasms and strains: musculoskeletal health.” SA Pharmacist’s Assistant, 16(3), 30-31.

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

Naser, S. S. A., & AL Mursheidi, S. H. 2016. “A Knowledge Based System for Neck Pain Diagnosis.” World Wide Journal of Multidisciplinary Research and Development (WWJMRD), 2(4), 12-18.