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3 min read

Hot Versus Cold Therapy: What to Use and When to Use It


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You don't have to choose between your pet and your wallet when it comes to expensive vet visits. Prepare ahead of time for unexpected vet bills by finding the pawfect pet insurance.

If your dog is injured, you may find you're getting a lot of advice from well-meaning sources, some recommending hot compresses, some cold. So who is right? Well, it depends on what injury you’re treating and when you are treating it. Read on for some clear advice on hot versus cold therapies, when and what to use.

When should I use cold therapy on my dog?

Cold therapy works by reducing blood flow to tissues. It is most commonly recommended for recent injuries, where inflammation or swelling is present. Ice packs help to minimize swelling by decreasing bleeding in tissues, which decreases swelling and relieves pain at the site of the injury. If you are using cold packs shortly after an injury, they are usually only useful for the first 48 hours after injury. Cold packs can also be used for chronic conditions caused by repeated strain causing inflammation.

Cold therapy may be useful in these instances:

  • Healing of soft tissues such as swollen joints
  • As management for osteoarthritis
  • Muscle spasms
  • Care of some skin conditions

Ice packs can be made with ice cubes, or crushed ice, in a plastic bag , a cold wet towel, or a package of frozen vegetables like peas or corn. Commercially available ice gel packs may also be used. Do not place ice packs directly on the skin, there should be a thin cloth such as a tea towel between the pack and skin and the cold pack should be moved to avoid damaging tissues by freezing them. Cold therapy can be used frequently within the first 48 hours after injury, and can be used for 10-15 minutes and not be used for more than 30 minutes at a time. Check your dog's skin every five to ten minutes to ensure the area being treated is not too cold to the touch.

When should I use heat therapy on my dog?

Heat is more often used to treat chronic conditions that are older than 48 hours. Heat therapy works by increasing blood flow to tissues. Heat helps to loosen and relax muscles, tendons, and ligaments, and by providing blood flow to an area, delivers oxygen and other nutrients to injured tissues and carries away toxins and lactic acids.

Heat should not be used where swelling is present because it increases blood flow; if bleeding and bruising are occurring do not use heat, which will only increase bleeding in a recent injury.

Heat may be useful for:

  • Muscle pain
  • Increased blood flow to an injury
  • Relaxing stiff muscle tissues
  • To draw out infection where an abscess is present

Heat therapy should be used for 10-15 minutes at a time and can be applied with a hot water bottle, heating pad, or hot wet towel. As with cold therapy, hot compresses should never be applied directly to your dog's body; provide a cloth such as a tea towel between the heat source and the skin. Be careful not to use excessive heat that could burn and damage tissues. Check the temperature frequently and provide a break between applications.

Do not use cold or heat therapy where the skin is compromised without first consulting a veterinarian to take precautions, such as providing an ointment or wound covering.

Making the call

In summary, cold therapy tends to be used shortly after an injury, to reduce swelling and bleeding to an injured site. Heat therapy tends to be used a few days after injury to increase blood flow to tissues for longer-term healing. Both should be used carefully, so as not to freeze or burn skin and tissues. Use a barrier between the cold or heat sources and your dog’s skin. Compresses should be used for about 15 minutes, and then a break provided between treatments. 

If open wounds exist, make sure you obtain medical advice to see if hot and cold compresses are appropriate and determine what steps should be taken to protect the wound. If a serious injury or condition exists, seek veterinary advice before applying hot or cold compresses to get professional advice, and prevent inadvertently making an injury worse. Heat and cold therapies can be very beneficial for treating your dog's injuries, just be sure to use compresses under the right circumstances.

Hot and cold therapy can promote healing and bring comfort to pets with mild injuries, but these treatments aren't substitutes for regular vet care. To prevent high vet bills, make sure you enroll your pet in pet insurance as soon as possible. Start comparing insurance plans from leading insurers like Healthy Paws and Embrace and save over $270 a year.

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