How to identify muscle tension or soreness in dogs

Updated: Feb 24

As a veterinary physiotherapist many of my dog owning clients are surprised when I tell them that their dog has multiple areas of soreness in their body, even when they seem perfectly fine. This can range from a small amount of underlying muscle tension to chronic hypertension caused by overuse. They are also surprised when I tell them that the majority of the cases that I see (unless the dog has had an operation or an injury) can not only be identified by the clients themselves, but also treated at home, with a few simple techniques (And you dont need to spend 4 years studying for a masters degree to learn them). Dog, horse or small animal physiotherapy is not rocket science, but more an almagamation of scientifically-proven therapy techniques matched with a detailed knowledge of anatomy and physiology. Many veterinary physiotherapists use a range of electrotherapies such as low level laser, pulsed electromagnetic therapy (PEMF) and TENS machines (yes the same ones pregnant women use during labour) but they are specifically used to assist with pain management or to optimise the bodies natural ability to heal, much of which can be done using simple massage techniques which we will discuss in future posts. Once again however, these techniques do not vary a great deal, whether massaging a dog, horse or cat (I am sure they would be applicable to other mammals, but I simply havent had the opportunity to find out for myself)

So how do you recognise if your dog or horse is sore and could benefit from physiotherapy?

The most obvious answer is that you will see a change in their gait or way of going, and if thats the case veterinary advice should be sought first - veterinary physiotherapists and othe paraprofessionals cannot treat an animal without veterinary consent. However, you can learn a lot about your dog or horses muscular health simply through stroking or grooming, and thinking about the "feel" of the muscles underneath your fingers.

The easiest way to identify soreness or tension in your dog is using the "steak" scale below, based on how you might check how well your steak has been cooked. The feel of the underlying tissue is dependant on the amount of tension in the muscle. as well as the amount of bloodlfow to it.


If you dog is lying down, this is how the majority of the muscles should feel if you run your hands slowly and gently over them. As a dog physiotherapist this is what I am feeling for when I complete a palpation. There is "tone" in the muscle, but no real tension. Horses are a little trickeier as of course they rarely lie down in the presence of humans, and they tend to have greater overall muscle tone.

Weight bearing

If the dog is standing then some muscles in the shoulders such as the triceps, and muscles in the back legs such as the biceps femoris (see below) should have some tension to them (otherwise the dog will fall over!). There will also be tension in the neck as the dog has to be able to support the head.

dog with imuscles of the hindlimbs
canine hind limb muscles

(Picture courtesy of


You know the kind of muscle soreness you get the day after you've been to the gym, or done something physical that you havent done for a while? Its called delayed onset muscle soreness or DOMS for short. There are various physical reasons for this phenomena which I wont go into detail about here, but this is the type of soreness your dog may be experiencing if you can feel tension under your hands. Dogs and horses suffer from muscle tension and soreness in the same way as humans do (we are made out of the same material after all), especially if they have been doing something they might not normally do, or have carried out repetitive tasks such as agility training. Its also common where dogs dont have the ability to warm uo poroperly before doing strenusous exercise, such as allowing them to go straight from the car to sprinting after a ball at the park.


If your dog is lying down and you can feel this kind of repsonse under your fingers I can guarantee your dog is a) sore, and b) suffering with some kind of gait abnormality or lameness. The reason I know is that the level of tension in the muscle has been created over time, and the fact that it "feels" abnormally tense means its using the muscle in a way that it would not do normally. Now there are of course some dogs that are heavily muscled, but in a relaxed state they should still feel firm but "springy" - hypertension means the muscle is still active, even though it shouldnt be.

dog with muscles of the forelimbs detailed
canine forelimb muscles

(Picture courtesy of


If you feel this mount of tension in a muscle when the dog is relaxed then you should contact a vet. Typically muscle contractures can be very small, specific points in a muscle, or the whole muscle itself. Imagine tensing a muscle as hard as you possibly can, and then not being able to stop! Its very painful, and can have serious consequences if not treated quickly and effectively. If the whole muscle is contracted then you will have noticed a severe chnage in gait or the wellbeing of your dog. As already mentioned veterinary physiotherapists and other para-professionals cannot treat your dog or horse without consent from a vet - that being said once consent is given then there are many physiotherapy treatment options available to assist the dog to get back to full fitness.

How do I know for certain that what I am feeling is tension or soreness?

One of the things we look for as veterinary physiotherapists is symmetry - your dog or horse should feel and look the same on both the left and right sidesof the body. Gait abnormalities and lameness cause asymmetries - muscles on one side of the body need to work harder than the other, and over time will grow or become tense through compensating for a wekaness or pain in the opposing side. If you practice running your hands slowly and gently over your dog comparing left and right sides as you do, you will soon start to notice inconsistencies and imbalances in both size and tone of certain muscles. The one slight caveat is that all dogs are ever so slightly asymmetrical - they tend to lad slightly more weight on their left forelimb and right hindlimb - so dont be too surprised if you start to notice this once you have been practising for a while

In our next post we will talk about what to do if you have identified soreness or tension, but if you would like any advice in the meantime feel free to contact us at

#veterinaryphysiotherapy #caninephysiotherapy #caninemassage #dogmassage #biomechanics #caninebiomechanics #horsephysiotherapy #equinephysiotherapy #equinetherapy

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