Managing Winter Aches

Brr! Despite the sun breaking through the clouds, there’s definitely a nip in the air! As we come into winter months, aches and pains for our animals start to flare up more. The cold and the wet weather gives rise to higher levels of pain and stiffness in compromised joints and muscles, whether from disease or injury. Why this is isn’t really all that well known, but it’s suggested could be multiple reasons for this, that aren’t necessarily linked to the actual weather: not moving as much to avoid going out in the cold, more micro slips in the wet and ice, and barometric pressure, to name but a few.
Thankfully, there are ways to manage it, and this is what we’ll be focusing on here! If you feel your pet or companion animal slowing down, have a chat with your vet and physio to organise an assessment.

Heat!

This one is probably the most obvious, and I’m sure many of you who have met me have heard me harp on about this but heat is an excellent way to manage winter aches. This can be in the form of heat pads and hot water bottles (local heating), but also making sure the house, stables or shed is warm, and using coats and rugs (systemic heating).
Heat increases blood flow, which is very helpful when managing chronic pain (please note, not so helpful for acute injuries and infection!). This increase in blood flow allows for nutrients and oxygen to get to work healing damaged tissues. Heat also increases tissue elasticity which soothes muscle tension, trigger points and knots. Heat can also stimulate pain receptors, lowering the amount of pain signals sent to the brain.
Local heating methods are fantastic for targeted heat application and can be used both before exercise and just in a general sense to help with sore areas. Heat pads are a little more expensive, but the temperature is more controllable. Hot water bottles are inexpensive and easy to source. The downside is the temperature is much harder to control, a protective layer has to be used or you run the risk of burning.
Systematic heating can be used in conjunction with local heating. You’ll often find your dog or cat curled up by the fire over winter. Ensuring your house, stables or shed is warm helps keep over all tension down. Shivering, due to its uncontrolled nature, is not helpful for already compromised bodies! Rugs and coats are very useful, particularly when outdoors, to help keep your animal warm, dry and comfortable.
(Note, if your animal is in an inflammation flare up, local cold applications may actually be more useful)

An old chocolate labrador wrapped in fleece blankets

Grip!

Given that one of the reasons suggested for an increase in pain over the autumn and winter months is the increase in micro-slips in the wet and ice, it makes sense to include grip as a way to manage winter aches.
Slipping wears on joints and soft tissue. Sometimes this wear is sudden or rapid, such as a muscle or ligament tear. Other times, this wear is slower and over time, resulting in arthritic changes. Either way, continued slips, big and small cause strain on a body, and can then increase damage and pain in those bodies that are already compromised.
There are several options we can go through to increase grip. In stables and yards, textured rubber matting can be put down in stables and walkways. Making sure any concrete areas are kept clear of ice is a safety measure that benefits both horse or farm animal, and their handlers . If your horse wears shoes, have a word with your farrier about adding pins or even studs if working on grass.
With our small animals, there is actually more choice. In the home, our flooring plays a big part in the level of slipping experienced by a pet. Slippery laminated or tile floors can and have caused issues, but especially with wet feet! Changing your floors may not be feasible, but you can get inexpensive non-slip mats and rugs for the commonly used paths in the house.
For dogs, there are also toe grips that slide over the nail to provide traction, or grippy socks designed for dogs. Outside, there are a range of boots and foot covers to help with grip. In all animals, keeping on top of their foot care helps significantly.
In large animals, this means regular trimmings as nails that are starting to curl up unbalances an animal at the best of time. In shod horses, this means keeping an eye that the shoes don’t become overly tight or loose. In small animals, this means keeping those toe nails short and if furry, keeping the pads trimmed.

A black and white horse rapidly changing direction

Movement!

Another one of the suggested reasons for the increase in aches and pains over the autumn and winter months is due to less movement. Movement is the oil for the joints and whilst excess movement is not ideal for most diseases and injuries, not enough movement is also to be avoided. There is a balance there, I promise!
Understandably, the amount of exercise our animals do during the worsening weather decreases. Nobody really likes going out in the rain and cold. It could be said that there is no such things as bad weather, just bad clothing, and sticking with the last two themes, there are options for your animal too. Whilst just being more prepared and going out anyway is certainly an option, we’re going to explore a few more options.
Large animals are at a slight disadvantage when it comes to alternative exercises. If it’s an option to move them to a larger shed with plenty of room to walk about, it would be a good idea to do so. Having various feeding spots would encourage movement. If it’s not an option, having access to a turnout area or field with precautions (see the last two posts of grip and warmth) and good shelter may suit. This may suit equines more than livestock, but stretches and PROM (passive range of motion) can help to keep the joints moving and the muscles active. Be sure to warm up the horse first before stretching! If you’re not sure how to stretch, please get in touch.
Small animals have more options. Whilst stretch, PROM and outdoor access all apply to small animals, we also have the option of in house exercises. Suitable exercises are very much animal dependant. Unfortunately, as compromised pets are affected by winter aches, their condition may also mean they can’t do certain exercises. Which exercises depend on the disease/injury, the advancement, the breed and even the individual animal. However, with the help of your vet and physio, in house exercises can be tailored to benefit!
Mental exercise (for large and small animals) aren’t quite what we’re discussing here but they certainly should not be overlooked! They’re very important for your animal’s overall health and by distraction and through calming, can help to relieve pain.

A Belgian Malinois holding a dumbbell, with a red towel over its shoulders.

Weight!

A controversial topic, but it’s super important to discuss. Weight is not something owners enjoy hearing about, but shedding the excess pounds off your overweight animal can add years to its life, and help a lot with managing aches and pains.
Fat is to inflammation as a forest is to a wild fire, not to mention the extra strain on joints and muscles. We won’t go into the other life limiting diseases obesity causes in our animals, as they’re not quite on topic but they’re certainly worth researching. In terms of inflammation, excess fat triggers an immune response. Unlike most other triggers on an immune response (injury or infection), excess fat does not heal without help. This then leads to chronic inflammation. The higher the levels of excess fat, the higher the levels of inflammation. This chronic inflammation gives rise to more stress on the body, along with out metabolic disease and it ends up in a vicious circle… which keeping those excess pounds off would prevent.
Moving on to talk about the strain on the joints and muscles. Excess fat is linked to the development on osteoarthritis. As the body needs to constantly carry more weight, the joints begin to break down, particularly without the muscle strength to support them. If your animal has an injury and illness that predisposes them to arthritis, then excess fat increases that risk substantially and speeds the onset. Diseases such as IVDD, LS, and Kissing Spines all are made worse by having to carry excess weight, as are injuries such as cruciate tears or suspensory damage.
Thankfully, losing weight is usually possible. Please talk to your vet before attempting to do so, to come up with an appropriate plan. There are foods specifically designed for weight loss, and food is key. As the saying goes, you cannot outrun a bad diet. Keep an eye on treats and tidbits given out during the day. Use a portion of the daily food allowance to treat, as opposed to extra treats. Remember, you, as the owner, are in charge of what your animals eat. Weight loss, especially is obese or morbidly obese animals, needs to be gradual.
Exercise depends on the animal’s current state. In particularly bad cases, even just a few steps on walk is enough. Over exercising can cause pain and injury, making the animal less able or willing to exercise. As in yesterday’s post, individual exercise plans can be drawn up.
Your cat/dog/pony is adorable in its own right, it doesn’t need to be “chonky” on top!

Nestle Purina BCS chart, on 1-9 scale
Kentucky Equine Research BCS chart, on 1-8 scale

Your Professional Team!

Regardless of what animals your own, what you do with them, or what conditions they have, you have a team of professionals around you that can help keep those winter aches at bay. Some of these professionals are species specific. Owners may need just a few of these, or all of them, but having a list of professionals may help in picking the best options for you.
Some of these professions are not regulated in Ireland (or are but are not enforced) so please make sure your professional is qualified to do what they do before employing them.

1. Vets. Your veterinary team is going to your primary care professional, regardless of what else you pick. Any change is condition, or new symptoms should be discussed with your vet. Directly between you and your vet, you can discuss medications and treatments, weight control, etc. You may also need your vet to refer to specialists and/or other professionals.

2. Rehabilitation therapists. This includes your physiotherapists, chiropractors, hydrotherapists, and so on. Keeping muscles tension and joint pain away, and keeping muscle strength up is the main goal for winter aches. Whilst the type of rehab therapist influences the method, each therapist type help to achieve that goal. Physiotherapists may target specific conditions and use modalities such as laser to help with pain management. Hydrotherapists are able to build muscle strength in even compromised animals, due to the non-weight baring nature of water. Each therapist can bring something to the table that will help you as an owner to help your animal.

3. Farriers/podiatrist. As the saying goes; no hoof, no horse, and undoubtedly the same goes for other large animals. Keeping up to date with foot work is very important in keeping pain at bay. Unbalanced hooves can cause whole body issues and therefore aggravate issues that already exist.

4. Groomers. As above, groomers can help keep small animal nails clipped and feet trimmer. Important for grip, but long nails can also cause compensatory issues. As animals get older and/or are dealing with injury or illness, they may be less able to look after themselves. A groomer means you stay on top of your pet’s grooming needs, and prevents matting and other painful problems that arise from poor grooming. Owners can, of course, groom their own dogs but employing a groomer means it’s done on a regular schedule and the groomer may be able to spot things under the coat that an owner may not notice.

5. Trainers/behaviourists. This is for both horse and dogs here. If a behaviour is aggravating an injury or illness, it may be worth getting a trainer or behaviourist involved to help stop unwanted behaviours effectively.

6. Dentists. For some, this means a trip to (or visit from) the vet, if a specialist dentist (such as an equine dentist) is not available. Whilst teeth are neither muscles or joints and generally aren’t affected by winter aches, a tooth ache certainly makes existing aches much harder to deal with. Keeping a regular dental schedule is important, but especially so when there are other issues at play.

7. Saddle fitter. One for the horse folk. Saddle fit is so important for the muscle health of your horse. Other than causing direct muscle pain when ill fitting, horses can also then develop related compensatory issues. The direct muscle pain will cause any other issues to be more difficult to cope with, as well as compensatory issues likely stress already compromised structures. This is another year round thing to do, but comes into more predominant importance when dealing with other aches and pains.

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