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Home Exercises That Can Help Your Stiff Dog

If your dog has stiff joints, as well as trying YuMOVE, it can be helpful for your dog to receive some physiotherapy from a qualified practitioner.

Today, we’re delighted that Kathryn Hall (part of veterinary team) has offered to share her professional insights on the benefits of canine physiotherapy and how exercises recommended by your physio therapists may help your dog at home.

You must not try these exercises without first receiving guidance from a veterinary physiotherapist. Otherwise, you risk doing more harm than good. Doing these exercises without guidance from a qualified physiotherapist can cause harm to your dog as each case is different and in some instances these exercises may not be suitable. These are just examples of some of the exercises a physiotherapist may recommend you conduct at home and to give you an insight as to how they may help an older stiffer dog.  

Luckily for us, Kathryn spends part of her working life running her veterinary physiotherapy business, Animotion, and the other part working with YuMOVE providing veterinary support.

Over to you, Kathryn!

How did you get into physiotherapy?

I’ve been passionate about animals from a young age and always wanted to help them in any way I could.

I studied a degree in Animal Science and wrote a dissertation on the effect of Cavaletti pole exercises on horses’ movement. Cavaletti poles are poles around 10 feet long and 4 inches wide which are laid on or slightly above the ground. By walking over the poles, horses can improve their balance, gait and muscle strength.

My study demonstrated the effect that walking over Cavaletti poles had on horses’ range of motion in their carpus, or knee joint. That got me interested in how such a subtle movement can have a dramatic effect on an animal’s ability to move.

I then did a post graduate diploma in Veterinary Physiotherapy and set up my own veterinary physiotherapy business. I’m qualified to treat all animals, but predominantly work with dogs and horses.

What can I expect in a physiotherapy session?

A session of physiotherapy would usually include a full static and dynamic assessment including range of motion and palpation to assess the dog. This would be followed by treatment using a combination of the use of electrotherapies, massage, stretches and remedial exercises. These would be tailored to your specific case and may not all be used in one session.

What are the benefits of physiotherapy for dogs?

There are so many! For a dog with stiff joints, it can help increase the range of motion and flexibility, reduce stress and anxiety, and improve general mood. Exercises, massage, stretching and electrotherapies can help all dogs with stiff joints to be more comfortable.

Can I give my dog physiotherapy at home?

Physiotherapy should always be performed by a qualified, insured physiotherapist however, there are certain remedial exercises that your physiotherapist will give you that you can perform at home. For example, I would treat a dog in a session of physiotherapy using electrotherapies, manual therapies and remedial exercises and then provide the owner with a plan of some remedial exercises they can then perform at home.

If it’s done the right way, physiotherapy at home can have an extremely positive effect on your dog. But if you do the exercises in the wrong way, or do too many repetitions, for example, you won’t be helping your dog at all.

What kinds of remedial exercises can I give my dog?

There are many different exercises that can be recommended however, there are six types of exercise that are often recommend. Here are details of the different types, along with their benefits and the risks associated with carrying them out without the support of a qualified veterinary physiotherapist.

1. Slow lead walking

Slow walking on a lead is a great way for a dog with stiff joints to build up muscle mass. Sometimes you see dogs trotting along, particularly little dogs. It means that they have a shorter ‘stance’ phase, when their paws are in contact with the ground. Although this is totally normal, in some instances a dog will do this to compensate and reduce the length of the stance phase on that leg, meaning taking weight off an area that’s feeling stiff. By asking your dog to walk slowly on the lead instead this increases the stance phase and therefore they put more weight on each leg, in turn increasing the strength of the muscles on each leg.

Another important thing to note when walking a dog suffering with stiffness is that you want to reduce any kind of excessive exercise and therefore little and often is better than one big walk in the day. For example, instead of one 45-minute walk you could split that up into two or three shorter walks (around 15 minutes long). Your dog will feel less stiff as they’re getting up and moving frequently, rather than lying down for extended periods. This will help with circulation and hyaluronic acid production within the joint.

Slow lead walking is often recommended in dogs suffering with stiff joints and although a very simple exercise I would recommend getting guidance from your veterinary physiotherapist as to how often and long is appropriate for your dog as each case is different.

2. Passive Range Of Motion exercises

Dogs back legs manipulated

Passive Range of Motion – or PROM – is the range of motion of a joint, performed without muscle contraction, using an external force (such as a therapist). This is essentially where your dog lies down, and you move their legs for them

The benefit of these exercises is that your dog’s joints are being moved without them using any energy. If your dog has stiff joints, it helps to maintain and increase movement and flexibility in the joint. It also helps the joint to produce the synovial fluid that acts as cushioning and as a shock absorber for your dog and it will help to reduce any muscle atrophy forming in a dog that is not as active as it once was. The easiest way to do this exercise is to get your dog to lie on one side, isolate the joint and gently flex and extend the limb within its natural range of motion.

With PROM exercises, it’s vital to receive instruction from a veterinary physiotherapist first or you could move the limb too fast or hold it at the wrong angle. Please don’t have a go and hope for the best. Get professional advice before you start.

3. Static weight shifts

If a dog has stiff joints, they will often compensate. For example, if a dog has stiff joints in their hind legs, they will front load, putting more weight on their front legs and putting these joints under more strain. Static weight shifts are a simple yet effective exercise which helps to encourage more even weight bearing and therefore muscle mass, helping reduce uneven forces on different joints and keep the joint more supported as the dog gets older.

It's recommended that you have two people for this exercise. With the dog standing square one person supports the dog at the front by the shoulders, while the other supports the dog with one hand on each hip joint. The next step depends on what weight shifts you have been recommended to target which area. For example, if your physiotherapist recommended to do hind weight shifts then the person supporting the hips would very gently move the dog to one side, back to the middle, and then to the other side. This is a very subtle movement that should not make the dog move its leg but instead just bear more weight on to one side. It’s similar to when you’re standing with both feet on the ground, shifting your weight from one foot to the other.

As before, you must have precise instructions from your veterinary physiotherapist on how to carry out these exercises properly. If you make your movements too swift, you won’t be producing the slow, intense movement that will help to increase your dog’s muscle strength. Different dogs will also need very different amounts of exercise. The amount of reps recommend will also vary massively depending on the case.

4. Sit to stand

This is the canine equivalent of a squat. The idea is to help your dog to build up their muscles around their hip and knee joints in a slow and controlled way.

If you think of your dog’s movement when they chase a ball or jump up high, they will be flexing and extending their back legs to the maximum extent. With this exercise, you’re allowing your dog to strengthen their muscles but within their own happy range of motion.

Essentially, you ask your dog to sit, then stand. It’s a simple exercise, but your dog needs to stand up straight – in what we call the ‘sagittal plane’. This means standing up without bending over to one side, which your dog might tend to do in order to compensate for stiff knee or hip joints. For example, if your dog always sits or lies to one side this could be a sign that it is uncomfortable for them to lie on the opposite leg. 

Although this is a straightforward exercise, you will need to ask your veterinary physiotherapist to advise whether it’s suitable for your dog and, if so, to let you know the correct number of repetitions.

5. Cavaletti poles

Often when a dog is stiff, they will have reduced range of motion meaning their stride length is  reduced. An easy way to see if this is the case is by checking that when their front paw, for example, leaves the ground, their left back paw goes straight into the spot that the front paw has just occupied. If a dog was walking on sand, the back paw would step right into the paw print left by the front paw.

When a dog has stiff joints, they have a reduced range of motion. Their back paws don’t have the flexibility to reach as far forward. Cavaletti pole exercises help because your dog has to flex and extend their legs to step over the poles on the ground. By lifting up their leg higher they increase their flexor and extender muscles and their range of motion.

Your veterinary physiotherapist can advise you on the right number of repetitions and the correct spacing between the poles, according to the condition and size of your dog. If you have the wrong spacing, your dog could stand on the pole and slip. Also, if your dog has a really low flight arc and is unable to lift their leg very high at all, ground poles may not be appropriate.

6. Weaving, circles and figures of eight

You can do these exercises in your house or, depending on the weather, in your garden. The idea is to encourage your dog to walk in a nice big circle or figure of eight, or to walk between weaving poles. All of these exercises will help strengthen your dog’s muscles and increase their range of motion.

When your dog is walking in a circle, they are increasing the weight load on their inside legs, helping to increase muscle strength. As well as this there outside legs are having to stretch further than normal to get around the circle and therefore, increasing flexibility and range of motion. However, it is important with circle work that you change direction, so you target both sides of the dog.

Before attempting these exercises, ask for your veterinary physiotherapist’s advice. They’ll suggest different numbers of repetitions depending on your dog’s age and condition. Also, if your dog has very stiff joints, walking in circles would not be recommended as this could put additional pressure on their joints.

How can I find a good veterinary physiotherapist?

Ask your vet for a recommendation or check out these associations that represent qualified veterinary physiotherapists:

Also, bear in mind that any veterinary physiotherapist will need consent from your vet before starting any therapy. This is to ensure that the physiotherapist knows your dog’s medical history and can take any existing conditions into account.

Once you’ve found someone who’s qualified and is recommended by your vet, it’s a question of meeting up with them to see how you and your dog get along with them.

Kathyrn stroking a horse

Kathryn Hall BS (Hons), PgDIP Veterinary physiotherapy, NAVP.


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