Physiotherapy for hip arthritis in dogs

This is a two part blog post written in conjunction with John Taylor, veterinary surgeon and owner of Mansion Hill Vets in Middleton Cheney. You can find his post on hip arthritis here.

Do you have a dog with recently diagnosed hip arthritis or dysplasia? Very often the first thoughts are panic or worry. Many owners worry that it has a very poor prognosis. I disagree! There is so much we can do.

Aims of physiotherapy:

  • relieve pain
  • control inflammation
  • maintain strength
  • optimise normal movement
  • reduce compensations

In physiotherapy we relieve pain by mobilising the hip joint and surrounding tissues manually and with exercises. This mechanical movement actually blocks pain signals to the brain and stimulates endorphins- you know those lovely feel good/ relaxing hormones you get after a nice massage. Guess what? This effect lasts after the treatment! Mobilising joints and tissues also stimulates blood flow and lymphatics reducing inflammation.

harry stretch


We also use low level laser therapy to help manage pain, inflammation and muscle tension associated with arthritis. This works by slowing down pain signals at the spinal cord, dissipating muscle knots, reducing inflammation and there is some evidence to suggest it can even improve cartilage structure.

bw laser dog


It is true that a significant help to the symptoms of arthritis is reducing the weight of your dog if they are overweight. Catch 22! You feel you can’t exercise your dog because they are sore or simply sit down when you try to walk them, so with diet alone it is hard for them to lose weight. This is where physiotherapy really helps, because we can help you and your dog grade your walks whilst helping to manage the pain and inflammation.

It is really important that we help our dogs to keep their muscles strong when arthritis is making the joints painful and swollen. The hip joint relies on the muscle around it to keep it stable. The more stable it is, the less painful it is. Unfortunately pain and swelling stop those muscles from working properly so we need to train them to cope with the new situation. We train these muscles through Pilates type exercises, graded walks and hydrotherapy. This helps pain and inflammation too, as moving the joints and muscles blocks the pain signals and gets the blood moving to whisk away the inflammation.

harry ball


Hydrotherapy has the added benefit hydrostatic pressure! Hydrostatic pressure in water stimulates cutaneous sensory nerves in the skin/ hair follicles and joint mechanoreceptors. These help to increase joint stability and block pain signals to the brain. This stimulation also encourages increased range of motion in the joints. Hydrostatic pressure can also reduce the effect swelling and pain has on preventing muscle from working.  Being in water reduces weight bearing through the arthritic joint, which reduces the pain associated with pressure on damaged cartilage and bone. This allows your dog to move without a limp and stop putting compensatory pressure on the other joints and tissues in the body. The more comfortable we can make your dog, the more normally they will move and the better their other joints will be! Walking in water or swimming also works your dog pretty hard. A 5 minute swim is equivalent to a 5 mile walk! So if you are trying to help your dog lose weight, hydrotherapy is ideal.

harry TM


Sometimes surgery is necessary because everything else is just not enough, or juvenile pubic symphysiodesis or triple pelvic osteotomy has been performed. The same principles above apply. You can do a hip replacement or a femoral head excision but those muscles will need to be retrained to work to help stabilise the new apparatus. Pain and inflammation is an initial factor following surgery. Low level laser therapy, ice, gentle movements, hydrotherapy (after the wound has healed), and massage can significantly help reduce pain and swelling.

When pain and swelling is under control, the work really begins to help your dog move normally again and stop compensating. Otherwise before you know it, another joint will need surgery! Many dogs have been limping for months before surgery, need help getting out of the habit and to trust that leg again. The earlier you get them moving normally, in a controlled way and doing core strengthening, the better. The new hip will be stronger quicker and the less strain there will be on other joints/ tissues.


Written by Hannah Oliver-Byrne, chartered physiotherapist.

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