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Passive range of motion exercises

Passive range of motion exercises for dogs

30 Jan, 2017

Range of motion or ROM are the different types of movements that a joint can make. Typically, we think of joints flexing and extending along a number of planes. Many joints can also rotate vertically and sideways. The range of motion in dogs’ joints is influenced by the skeletal structure of the joint and the surrounding soft tissues (ligaments, tendons and muscles). For example, the stifle (knee joint) can flex and extend but normally has limited rotation, sideways or forward (drawer) movement. Other factors that influence range of motion is the dog’s activity level, body condition (whether they are obese or fit) and joint health.

If a dog has limited range of motion in a joint, it may or may not affect their ability to exercise. The impact on movement depends on the affected joint and the types of movement the dog is expected to perform. For instance, limited stifle flexion may not affect the dog’s ability to walk however at a gallop you would notice lameness.

Having said that, in a study of Labradors with hip dysplasia, those dogs with the least lameness (i.e. greatest range of motion) were reported to have exercised the most each day. This study suggests a link between ROM, lameness and the ability to exercise.

How can my dog’s joint range of motion be maintained?

One tool in a myofunctional therapist’s toolkit for maintaining joint health are passive range of motion exercises. These exercises involve a therapist moving the dog’s joints through their range of motion without the dog actively contracting their muscles.

These exercises involve gentle, repetitive motions of the joint in its mid-range – not full extension or flexion. They should not cause the dog any pain. Their purpose is to stress the tissues sufficiently to aid proper healing and maintain function.

These exercises can benefit dogs in a number of ways:

  • Promotes cartilage nutrition and improves synovial fluid production.
  • Decreases adhesions and contractures of the tissues around the site of surgery or injury, result in shortening of the soft tissues.
  • Reduces fluid accumulation around the site of an injury or surgery.
  • Relieves pain through the gate control mechanism.
  • Improves joint motion.
  • Aligns scar tissue along the lines of muscle stress so the scar is stronger and the muscle less prone to future injury.
  • Slows muscle atrophy in an immobilised limb.

Are passive ROM exercises safe for dogs?

If a dog’s joints are manipulated too aggressively through its range of motion then it can result in pain, tissue damage, and delayed healing and use of the limb.

Typically, I incorporate passive range of motion exercises into a broader treatment involving massage to warm and loosen the surrounding muscle fibres.

Would my dog benefit from passive ROM exercises?

Rehabilitating dogs after surgery or an injury. Passive range of motion exercises performed frequently after surgery or injury can help avoid the onset of muscle contracture and keep the joints mobilised. A study of dogs who had undergone surgery for ruptured cranial cruciate ligaments showed that those dogs that received a therapist lead rehabilitation programme (compared to home exercises) comprising massage, passive range of motion exercises, and weight bearing exercises had restored normal range of stifle motion by the end of the study. In the dogs that received the rehabilitation programme, stifle flexion and extension was significantly greater at week 3 and 6 post surgery than the home exercise group.

Dogs with chronic conditions such as osteoarthritis or hip dysplasia benefit from increased joint motion. Restricted joint movement leads to less activity which in turn results in muscle shortening and fibrosis. Maintaining a full range of joint motion is important to enable the dog to exercise regularly as exercise strengthens and stretches the muscles that support joints and helps retain joint health.

What dogs benefit from passive ROM?

Passive range of motion exercise benefits dogs where loss of joint motion is a risk. Joint motion can be compromised in the following situations:

  • Immobilisation – When a joint is likely to be immobilised for an extended period due to surgery or injury. Immobolisation is a major cause of loss of joint motion as it results in enzymatic changes in the joint capsule and is detrimental to the musculoskeletal tissue surrounding the joint.
  • Muscle contracture -This can occur as a result of a bone fracture, limb disuse or joint immobilisation. Muscles that cross a joint can become fibrotic (excess fibrous tissue laid down to repair a muscle injury) and lose their ability to contract.
  • Abnormal skeletal growth – This can affect joint motion for example patella luxation.
  • Neuromuscular disease – Where the disease affects muscles that cross joints, motion may be impacted. Moving the joints through the normal range of motion will help maintain joint health.
  • Joint laxity (looseness) – Joint laxity can occur from loss of muscle tone due to age or a health condition, or abnormal posture or weight bearing. Joint laxity can impact joint motion.

Full Stride can work with you to design a treatment programme to maintain your dog’s range of motion. Please contact me to discuss how Full Stride can help keep your dog active.

Until next time, enjoy your dogs.


Greene, L.M, Marcellin-Little, D.J & Lascelles B.D. 2013 “Associations among exercise duration, lameness severity and hip joint range of motion in Labrador Retrievers with hip dysplasia” Journal of American Veterinary Medical Association 242: 1528-33

MacFarlane, P.D, Tute, S.A & Alderson, B 2014 “Therapeutic options for the treatment of chronic pain in dogs”, Journal of Small Animal Practice (55) p127 – 134

Marcellin-Little, D.J & Levine, D 2014 “Principles and Application of Range of Motion and Stretching in Companion Animals” Veterinary Clinics of North America – Small Animal Practice

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

Monk, M.L, Preston, C.A & McGowan, C.M 2006 “Effects of early intensive postoperative physiotherapy on limb function after tibial plateau leveling osteotomy in dogs with deficiency of the cranial cruciate ligament” Australian Journal of Veterinary Research, Vol 67, No. 3

Olby, N, Halling, K.B & Glick, T.R. 2005 “Rehabilitation of the neurologic patient” Veterinary Clinics Small Animal Practice 35: 1389–1409