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Interrupting the Cycle of Compensations

How can a dog with a consistent exercise routine suddenly become weaker in their hindlimbs? Signs may be subtle, so can take a while to recognise. You may first notice a change in physical appearance or feel of the back legs, or maybe that they’ve been struggling to jump in the back of the car or get up the stairs to bed. Loss of muscle mass can happen very quickly, or progressively over many months.

"But if he’s been exercising the same amount every day as before, how can this happen?"

"Can I just increase their exercise, and this will build back the muscle?"


First, it’s important to understand the reason why the muscle has been lost in the first place. Muscle loss can occur for many reasons, including post-surgery, injury or because of degenerative diseases such as osteoarthritis. In these cases, we call the muscle loss ‘disuse atrophy’, because the muscle has been lost through a decrease in use. Pain or weakness leads to a shift of weight to less painful or stronger areas, which it turn affects muscle symmetry. We call this a pattern of compensation, because the dog is having to compensate for the painful or weak area.



Why is this a bad thing?

The canine body naturally distributes weight 60% to the front limbs (30% each), and 40% to the back limbs (20% each). Temporarily, the limbs can cope with a disturbance to this ratio. However, long term, repetitive strain takes its toll on joints and soft tissues and causes secondary issues. This can range from muscle aches and pains, up to severe soft tissue injury or the development of osteoarthritis and chronic pain.


If the primary pain or weakness that caused this compensation is not dealt with, then increasing your dog’s exercise or putting ‘rehabilitation exercises’ into place (*) will simply mean that they are reinforcing the abnormal pattern and exacerbating the resulting strain on other areas of the body.


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(*) Physiotherapy and rehabilitation exercises are prescribed by veterinary physiotherapists! Be wary of using online exercise plans, as these don’t account for the dogs’ conditions, compensations, individual skill, fitness, breed differences, age... It is not a one size fits all approach, and can end up doing much more harm than good!

So, what can be done?

The first thing is always to speak to your vet and establish:

  1. Do we know what is causing the muscle loss?

  2. Have we dealt with the cause? – surgery, treatment, effective pain relief plan

  3. Are their movement patterns still abnormal?

The primary issue has been addressed, so why would their movement still be abnormal?

Dogs are amazingly adaptable. We also know that pain has a huge influence on behaviour, and ‘pain memory’ is a very difficult thing to overcome. The longer the dog was in pain, the more ingrained those adaptions, behaviours and associations will be. Just because the pain has reduced, unfortunately doesn’t mean they automatically return to how they used to be.

If the compensations went on long enough to result in muscle loss, then even if the primary pain is addressed, they now have an area of muscle weakness. Naturally, they will continue to use the strongest areas of their body and the patterns of compensation will continue.

That’s where we as veterinary physiotherapists comes in!

Our job is to assess how that dog is moving, where those compensations lie, and whether any pain is being addressed well enough to begin rehabilitating that dog back to normal function.

We can then help with addressing the compensations by using manual therapy (e.g., massage, stretches, joint mobilisation) and electrotherapy tools (e.g., LASER therapy, Ultrasound therapy) to aid in reducing pain and inflammation and addressing soft tissue tightness and spasm.


We then implement a targeted home exercise plan, hydrotherapy and lifestyle adaptions to re-educate gait and movement patterns, and minimise risk of further injury or disease deterioration. It then takes time, dedication and consistency to undo the compensations and allow good postural and gait habits to form.


For life-long conditions, where the primary issue is unable to be resolved (e.g., osteoarthritis, hip dysplasia, elbow dysplasia), ongoing physiotherapy may be beneficial to address the re-occurring compensations and prevent secondary issues from developing.

To find a qualified veterinary physiotherapist near you, visit the National Association of Veterinary Physiotherapists register…


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