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This is a big question:  My dog has had surgery/an injury. Will his muscles return to normal – by themselves?


According to Michelle Monk, leading Pet Rehab specialist with a Masters Degree in Animal Physiotherapy, the short answer:


This is a common question to canine physiotherapists. Most people think that muscles will grow back to normal size by themselves after injury or surgery. Unfortunately, many times this is not the case for your poor dog.


What happens?


1. Muscle Atrophy

Muscle atrophy occurs when the muscle “wastes away” or becomes smaller. This starts to happen quite early on at the start of an injury or disease. Muscle Atrophy may go unnoticed in the

Muscle Atrophy – ACL injury

beginning, particularly if your dog has a longer coat. For dogs who suddenly go lame or have surgery on a leg, wasting away of muscle will be more noticeable. It will actually get a little worse before it gets better.


Muscle atrophy occurs for a variety of different reasons. There are however two main reasons:


  • In response to Pain.

An example: if your dog injures their knee joint (stifle) or has some arthritis, this will cause pain. The pain in the local region causes the muscle fibres to not switch on completely anymore. As the whole muscle is not completely “switched on”, the weakness and atrophy result.


  • Due to Disuse.

If your dog is limping and not using his limb and the muscles are not used for normal movement, atrophy results.

This usually happens after a mild injury or there is the start of some arthritis. Disuse also occurs where your dog needs to be crated after surgery or injury.


Generalised atrophy may occur when there is disuse of the whole body. This may occur in a dog that has had prolonged restricted activity or crate rest.

Specific atrophy occurs in a specified area or limb. This may be seen in an affected limb or limbs due to injury or surgery.


Dogs generally move around on 4 limbs. A small amount of discomfort in a single leg causes them to transfer their weight around to their healthy legs. Dogs do this more easily than us humans who only have two legs.

In the early stages of an injury, dogs can effectively hide their pain like this and it may go unnoticed by a pet owner. Your veterinarian or physio will best examine your dog’s legs. They will be able to feel a difference in muscle size, confirming that muscle atrophy has occurred.

Muscle atrophy occurs much quicker when both disuse and pain are present.


2. Muscle Inhibition

Muscle Atrophy is made worse or compounded by muscle inhibition.

Inhibition occurs when a muscle partially or completely shuts down.


What does it mean for a muscle to shut down?

The nerves that normally send and receive signals within that muscle aren’t working properly. The nerves are sending distorted messages. It is also possible that they have stopped sending messages altogether.

Muscle inhibition may be due to factors such as swelling, inflammation, joint laxity or instability and pain. It may even be due to a surgeon having to cut through muscle to get to the injured area which brings with it these factors.


Muscle inhibition is commonly seen in:

  • quadriceps group after knee surgery in both dogs and humans.
  • the triceps muscle group in dogs after elbow surgery.


An example:

When your dog has surgery for a ruptured cruciate ligament (ACL), the following may occur:

  • Your dog may experience generalised muscle atrophy of the affected limb from pain.
  • There may also be some disuse atrophy due to lameness.
  • It is also possible for them to have muscle inhibition of the cranial (anterior) thigh muscles.
  • This is usually due to pain, swelling and inflammation from the initial injury and then the surgery itself.


The result is an imbalance of muscle forces around the joint.

To compensate, other muscles will become overused and tighten as they try to compensate for the inhibited ones. An all-around uncomfortable experience. Unfortunately, some safety mechanisms of the body are not the best thing for it.

The imbalance and compensation of these overworked muscles lead to joint movement limitations. Limitations in joint movement may lead to misalignment within the joint and altered movement patterns.

To further the problem, weak muscles become weaker whilst the strong muscles become stronger creating more misalignment of the body and movement.

Misalignment within the joint brings with it early wear and tear of that joint, resulting in arthritis.


The bad news? Trying to strengthen inhibited muscles on your own is not possible.

Why? Because these muscles are not receiving normal neurological inputs. The signals are absent or distorted.



What can you do?


How can you help to treat Muscle Inhibition and Atrophy?

Muscle inhibition and atrophy persists when a dog is left to recover after surgery with just crate rest and a walking program.

Sure, some muscle will grow back once lameness subsides, but the muscle won’t ever get back to normal of its own accord.

In addition, your dog may have developed altered movement patterns to compensate for weaknesses. Any compensation due to inhibition (poor nerve messaging in the muscles) won’t rectify themselves.


The result: a limb that is not moving as well as it could, affecting strength and motion.

So the body must compensate.

The body compensates by transferring the weight around elsewhere within the body. This leaves other areas vulnerable to injury.


The good news – specific structured rehabilitation programmes address these problems directly. They target the individual needs of each patient.


Considering the following:

Why would you spend thousands of Rands on a surgery for your dog to stabilise a joint?

Then NOT follow up with rehabilitation and supplementation that maximises their functional outcomes?


Treatment Techniques

Addressing muscle inhibition should be the primary concern.

This means managing any pain, swelling and inflammation.


Veterinary Physiotherapists and rehab specialists assist through targeted programmes. Specialised programmes assist inhibited muscles to start to spark again, release tight, compensatory muscles and activate and strengthen muscles.

All this is done very carefully after surgery so as not to jeopardise healing and repair.

Once healing has taken place, select exercises are introduced for strengthing and restoration.

This plan gives your fur buddy the best chance for maximal recovery.


Your fur buddy can then enjoy an optimal performance in life and any exercise they pursue.


Isn’t that all anyone wants for their best friend?

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