Mar Vista Animal Medical Center

3850 Grand View Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90066




Life with a dog with mobility issues is a challenge and it would be wonderful if there was a magic pill that could be give to make a stiff older dog as supple as a youngster. Unfortunately, despite advances in arthritis medications for dogs, there is more to therapy than giving pills. The more advanced the mobility problems are, the more important physical therapy becomes in maintaining function.

The following are some general suggestions that may be helpful at home. In reality, the more time one is able to spend with physical therapy, the better the results. A formal program for a pet's specific issues is ideal and is ideally based on the pet's individual joint extension/flexion measurements, force plate analysis, muscle circumference measurements etc. If possible, a professional veterinary physical therapist should be consulted formally for a program.

Exercise should never be performed to the extent that it is painful for the patient.



When one talks about a warm-up before exercise, one literally means warming the muscles. Warmth decreases stiffness and increases blood flow to the muscle. It also directly reduces pain. A warm wash cloth in a plastic baggie makes an excellent warm compress (test it on yourself to be sure it is not too hot) for application to the stiff joints. The joints can be flexed and extended passively and the muscles gently massaged. A good five minutes of this is helpful prior to exercise.



Arthritic joints rely on strong muscles for support yet arthritis pain leads to disuse and poor muscle conditioning. For this reason, regular exercise is an important foundation. Short walks or swims which do not leave the pet unduly sore the next day should be part of the daily exercise routine. Exercise helps reduce excess weight and keeps joints flexible. Exercise should avoid sudden spurts of speed and should be done at a steady pace, even if that pace is slow.

  • If the pet is sore after exercise, do not exercise until the pain seems to be resolved. Re-start the exercise at 50% of the duration. Fifteen minutes of ice packing can be applied to an acutely painful joint.
  • If one wants to try increasing the exercise, a 20% increase in exercise time should be effected.



At the end of the exercise period, a reduced pace of exercise is done as a “cool down.” Ideally, a 5 minute slower pace of the exercise is followed by 5 minutes of massage.



During warm-up and cool down, one of the techniques that can be used to assist flexibility is Passive Flexion/Extension exercise, also called “passive range of motion.” Here the patient lies on his or her side with the side to be exercised up. Starting with the foot, the joints are flexed and extended through their natural range of motion moving up the leg all the way to the shoulder/hip. If the exercise causes discomfort (for example, dogs with bad hips are quite painful when the rear leg is extended backward), do not continue to a painful point. Ideally 10-15 flex/extensions are performed on each joint and this is done 2-4 times daily.

MedVetOhio, a large referral center, has put together these videos demonstrating PROM

PROM of the front leg.

PROM of the rear leg.



There are many hand motions that can be used in massage:

  • Stroking
    This is done with the palm of the hand on the pet moving from head to tail or from shoulder/hip down to toe.
  • Effleurage
    This is also done with the hand on the pet and even pressure on the hand. Effleurage follows the opposite direction of stroking (toe to body). Over- lapping strokes are used to cover the entire body area.
  • Percussion
    This involves tapping of the body with a cupped hand with light brisk contact. The “karate chop” position of the hand can also be used for percussion.
  • Friction
    This uses the tip of the fingers to make small rotary motions.

veterinary compresses

Special veterinary compresses
can be purchased (such as this
one from

There are, of course, many other techniques that can be used. Benefits of massage include increased circulation to the area, increased lymphatic flow, improved mobility of tissues, and relaxation. Any combination of these techniques can be used on the pet as time allows. As for more specific exercise, tilting boards can be used as can a stability ball. Swimming or a water treadmill is helpful as the water supports weak joints (though a proper pet life jacket is important). Sometimes agility exercises are in order. As always, the program is geared towards the lifestyle of the patient.

We hope these tips are helpful in keeping the poorly mobile pet functional. If your pet seems unduly painful or is not responding as expected, please contact your veterinarian.

For pet physical therapy in our area:

 CARE logo


CRI logo


[Back to Arthritis / Joint Disease Information Center]


Page last updated: 12/13/09