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Heat and cold applications are used to relieve pain in acute or chronic conditions and in inflammatory disorders for both humans and animals. Heat and cold are still the best treatment in the practice of pain control. Because they affect the superficial nerve endings, both heat and cold decrease pain and muscle tension. No other methods are as effective, as safe and easy to use, as free from side effects and as cost effective.

Using heat or cold applications alone, or with stretching exercises, or before and after massage treatments will increase the effectiveness of your home-care program. Because of their physical effects, they are used at different stages of an injury's development, for example, cold in acute stage and heat in chronic condition.

Heat and Cold applications come in a number of forms depending upon the temperature of the water, the method of application and the duration of application. Heat and Cold application temperatures are classified as:

  • Cold: to 60°F (4.4 to 15.5°C);
  • Cool: 65 to 75°F (18.3 to 23.8°C);
  • Tepid: 85 to 95°F (29.4 to 35°C);
  • Warm: 90 to 100°F (32.2 to 37.7°C);
  • Hot: 100 to 110°F (37.7 to 43.3°C).

Heat and Cold applications produce two effects: a first, temporary effect and a second, more lasting effect.  For example, cold first constricts the blood vessels and numbs the nerve endings (pain control). Then, it triggers a lasting dilation of the vessels. Heat first dilates the blood vessels and soothes the nerve endings; then, it causes a lasting relaxation of the tissues.

WARNING!  When applying heat, the temperature should be comfortable to your hand! If too hot for your hand, too hot for your animal!

Duration of Application

The more extreme the temperature, the shorter the application should be; the more moderate the temperature, the more prolonged the application could be. Ice pack, wrapped in a towel can be applied for ten minutes on average. Heat pads, as long as comfortable can be applied for ten to twenty minutes. Always observe the feedback signs of your animal and use your common sense.

Choosing the Right Application

Cold Application
Cold is mostly used in the acute stage (first 24 hours) of an injury, during the early stage of an inflammation to relieve the swelling and pain symptoms. Cold is widely used in emergencies - right after an injury or a trauma - to stop any bleeding, prevent excessive swelling and lower the pain level.

Cold can also be applied during the flare-up of old chronic injuries to reduce inflammation and pain symptoms.

When using cold to deal with acute problems be careful not to lower the temperature too much by excessive cold or prolonged water treatments. A “cold reaction” may follow. Cover the animal with a blanket.

Cold water should be used to relieve burn pain. Immediately immerse the burned area in very cold or ice water, or spray cold water over the area until the animal is pain-free. Check with you veterinarian.

Cold Devices and Techniques
Several cooling devices are used in cold therapy:

  • Specially designed leg wraps with Velcro containing chemical ice bags. These leg wraps are easy to assemble and are very convenient when travelling.
  • Specially designed leg boots that can be filled with cold water.
  • The Ice-cup massage technique is most efficient and readily available.
  • The most widely known and very practical application is cold water hosing (spraying or bathing).
  • Containers of cold water are very practical and popular. To remove toxins from the skin and keep swelling down some practitioners add apple cider vinegar and sea salt.
  • Crushed ice and water in a plastic bag wrapped in a towel, applied to the skin and held with a bandage is very practical and inexpensive.
  • Cold poultices are very effective in relieving tendon inflammation. They are made with a semi‑solid mixture of clay in a cotton cloth and applied to the body part cold.
  • A cotton towel wrung out in cold water and kept in a refrigerator or freezer can be wrapped around a leg or joint to reduce inflammation. Hold in place with a leg wrap or pin.
  • A cold towel or a cold mitten applied with large friction movements over the whole body will produce a stimulating, tonic effect.
  • Sponging with cool water is a quick way to cool off a dog during exercise.

The Ice Cup Massage Technique
Use a four to eight ounce paper or Styrofoam cup, filled with water and frozen. Hold the cup by the bottom, peel the rim away and apply the ice on the coat to massage the area in a circular motion. The rhythm should not be too slow, nor too fast, approximately four seconds for every five inch circle. The pressure is light (one or two pounds). The application should last from 5 to 10 minutes depending on size of area to work on. Observe the structure, the degree of swelling, the inflammation present in the tissues and the tenderness of the tissues. Be careful not to cause ice burns. Follow with a light massage (strokings, effleurages, gentle kneadings) or wrap the area with some cloth to regenerate warmth quickly. This technique is very useful when dealing with any swelling and inflammation in the leg. It is easily available, easily transported, easily applicable and is inexpensive.
5.1 (Photo)           Ice Massage Technique
Cold hydrotherapy applications are easily available, easy to work with, inexpensive and very effective. Have some ice cubes or ice-cups and wet towels ready for use in your freezer. It pays to be ready for emergencies!  Include this procedure in your preventive therapy, before and after your massages; it will make your work easier and more effective.

Heat Application
Heat is invaluable in therapy. Heat is used at every level in the medical practice - not only in hydrotherapy, but also with ultrasound, lasers, heating lamps and so on. In combination with massage therapy, heat greatly helps in the recovery stages of injuries, as well as in maintenance and preventive programs.

Heat is mostly used in the chronic stage of a condition to loosen the tissues and to increase blood circulation. It is very efficient for arthritis and general muscle stiffness due to old age.
Heat Devices and Techniques

  • A hot water bottle is very effective and practical to access.
  • Heat lamps are efficient but require special installations.
  • Electrical heating pads are not recommended. They may cause burns on recumbent patients and are potentially dangerous because they are a chewing hazard (choking) and a water shock (urine) hazard.
  • Hydrocollator packs are probably the most convenient. These packs contain mud and are preheated in hot water containers. Wrap them in a towel before you apply them to your dog. Be careful that the temperature is not so high that it burns the animal's skin (no more than 12°C/53.6°F above normal body temperature).
  • Hot towels are very convenient but need to be replaced regularly. Penetrating deeper into the muscle layers, wet or moist heat is generally more effective than dry heat. When applying hot towels, cover them with plastic to ensure an accumulation of body heat.
  • Poultices are very effective. Poultices produce moist heat from a semi-solid mixture of various substances such as clay, flax seed or mustard applied to the body while hot.
  • A hot water hosing application is very practical and popular.
  • Some facilities are equipped with warm whirlpools. These are excellent for therapeutic exercises and training but are not easy to access.
  • Counter-irritant liniments produce heat effectively, but they should be used very cautiously. Ask your veterinarian first, because there is a risk of skin irritation. Also, such liniment applications should be covered to prevent the dog from licking the product off or rubbing it into its eyes, etc.

Heat applications are easily available, easy to work with, inexpensive and very effective. Have some electrical heating pads or water bottle ready for use in your home. It pays to be ready for emergencies!  Include this procedure in your preventive therapy, before and after your massages; it will make your work easier and more effective.

Conclusion of Heat and Cold Applications
The use of Heat and Cold applications will greatly enhance your home care work and bring a lot of comfort to your animal. When well organized, these applications are a quick and inexpensive form of therapy to add to your massage and stretching routines.

I hope you enjoyed this article and found the information useful.  My goal is help you provide quality home care for the benefit of your animal.

Please visit our FREE library. Our many articles address important aspects of animal wellness and fitness. Take the time to scroll through our free library to find out how you can actively contribute to your horse’s wellness.

Animal Awareness also offers a large video library with over a 100 mini-videos that will show you how to easily perform the various massage and stretching techniques talked about in this article, and more. These videos offer you the correct start and visual guidance. With this knowledge, you will be able to develop a good home care program for the benefit of your animal friend.  He will love you for it.

Enjoy your new Awareness!

Jean-Pierre Hourdebaigt, LMT

To learn everything you need to know to safely apply Heat and Cold modalities onto your animal here are the recommended DVDs to Downloads:

The “Hydrotherapy” (CV008) video will show you how safely apply heat and cold modalities, especially the Ice-cup massage technique. Combined with the “Stretching Exercises” (CV007), the “Relaxation Massage Routine” (CV004) or the “Full Body Massage” (CV006), they will have a great relaxing benefit to your animal.