To make the most of stretching it’s important to understand how it works. This article covers the physiology of stretching, uses for stretching and when not to stretch your pet.
Extensor muscle forelimb stretch
Let me introduce you to the orchestrator of stretching: the Golgi Tendon Organ, GTO for short. The GTO lives in two places, the muscle to tendon junction and inside the joint capsule. It is a multifunctional sensory receptor that constantly monitors muscle tension and relays the information to the spinal cord. From there the information is filtered and either sent to the cerebellum in the brain or to further nerves. When a muscle elongates it is actually contracting but when it gets to the point of maximal length the GTO senses this and transmits a signal to the spinal cord. The spinal cord then transfers this information to another set of nerves that actually inhibits further muscle contraction and causes the muscle to relax and lengthen. This is the point where the movement becomes a stretch.
This is what happens you stretch your animal.
A common misconception is that a stretch is when a muscle is being pulled longer, but this is not so. If you try to do this you will probably just end up stiff and sore because you’ve put micro tears in your muscle fibres. You cannot physically pull a muscle into stretching; it has to relax to truly lengthen and stretch; you can only achieve this if you activate the GTO. At the same time as the muscle relaxes its antagonist muscle contracts. All muscles move body parts in pairs (or more) and to every muscle there is a counteractive muscle called the antagonist. So not only does stretching relax tight muscles it also strengthens opposing muscles, which is great for balance and posture.
I use stretching a lot in canine and equine physiotherapy because, with the targeted application, by stretching the animal’s muscles I can also increase Range of Motion (ROM) at a joint and help improve the flexibility of body segment, eg. the back or a hind leg. Though stretching alone will not do this and needs to be coupled with other strengthening and balance exercises, which is where my physiotherapy assessment is key to know what other individualised exercises to prescribe.
Times when stretching could advantage your horse, dog or cat are known as ‘indications’ for stretching, which are detailed below. However, there are also times when stretching can be detrimental to your animal and are called ‘contraindications’. To make it easier to decide if your pet needs stretching, I’ve made list of the main indications and contraindications.
You can stretch your pet if:
- It is sound, has tight muscles and no pain is present. How do you know if your dog has tight muscles? Get your veterinarian, a well-qualified veterinary physiotherapist or therapist to assess your animal first. Be careful not to confuse stiffness with tightness, the former often indicates joint or soft tissue issues
- As part of a cool down to reduce Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) and reduce risk of injury. A study done in horses has shown that stretching as part of their training programme increased their flexibility but when stretched too often it actually made them STIFFER because they were over stretched, which caused micro trauma to the soft tissue and soreness! When a dog or horse is sore it will guard it’s movement and not perform. Another study on the effects of stretching arthritic dogs showed the patients increased their joint ROM. The prescribed stretches were taught to the owners, they were told how long to stretch for and how often so as not to hurt their dogs. In order to know which stretches your pet needs, how often to do them and for how long for you need to be guided by a professional.
- As part of a conditioning programme to increase flexibility and get more out of your pets’ performance. There are animal physiotherapists that offer tailor made stretching programmes to effectively target the tight areas for your animals’ body and increase their flexibility, including myself. This can help them turn better, stride longer or jump freer.
- If your horse, dog or cat has been referred to a veterinary therapist and they have told you to stretch your dog as part of a programme.
Don’t stretch your pet for the following reasons as it could result in INJURY and PAIN:
- It has an acute condition. The tissue will be painful, inflamed and possibly torn (following surgery/injury), lengthening the muscle and other soft tissues when it needs to repair will cause damage.
- It has a neurological deficit meaning there is a problem with the nervous system. This can be caused by spinal damage, which needs to heel. Stretching a body part whether limb, neck or back requires the spine to be stabilised by muscles and this will put strain on the damaged part of the spine. There are many other causes for neurological deficits and the stretch reflex may also be compromised due to disruption to the nervous system.
- Your animal has an undiagnosed pain and you should see your vet immediately. All manual therapies are contraindicated at this time as the reason for pain is unknown and intervention can easily make your animal worse.
- There is an unstable fracture site. Stretching in an area where the bone is fragile and trying to repair can move and re-break the site. The surrounding soft tissue will also be very painful and inflamed, moving the tissue before it is ready can cause significant pain and further soft tissue injury to your animal.
- Some lamenesses because stretching can make some lameness worse. For instance, if there is laxity at a joint and it needs to be stabilised stretching has the reverse effect to this.
- Your animal displays reluctance to stretch. The animal’s general health, physical condition, age and temperament may mean your animal does not want to be stretched.
- Acute and sub-acute stages of tendon & ligament injuries because there is still damage to the soft tissue and it needs to repair before it can be stretched. If it is stretched too early it will cause further micro tears, worsening the injury and prognosis because ultimately there will be more scar tissue.
Stretching is a more complicated physiological process than many people initially think. Used at the right time and in the right way it has many benefits but if it is used inappropriately it can cause pain and injury to your animal. If you are unsure whether your animal will benefit from being stretched you should seek professional advice from your vet, vet physio or a well-qualified therapist. If you're not sure where to find one of these, then you can ask your local practice for recommendations or search Register of Musculoskeletal Practitioners who have high minimum standards of qualifications and clinical experience of their membership: RAMP REGISTER. I always advise you get a physical assessment before stretching your animal to ensure it’s safe and to maximises effectiveness.
Written by Katherine Brown, MSc Veterinary Physiotherapy, Physiotherapst at KB Vet Physio