Why do we stretch our pets?

In short the same reasons why we stretch!

What are the benefits?

- Improving flexibility/extensibility

- Improves strength

- Improves range of motion and so in turn stride length

- Improves proprioception (body awareness and movement)

- Increases muscle mass

- Reduces muscle spasms

- Reduces scare tissue

- Prevents tissue shortening (tightness)

What can stretching help with:

- Arthritis

- Fixating patella

- Tendon and ligament injuries i.e CCL, PSLD

- Kissing spines

- Scar tissue

- Hip/elbow dysplasia

Stretching can have many benefits before, after and in-between exercise sessions, as well as an exercise in their own right, and as a means to soften tight muscles (reduce spasm) and relieve pain. Increasing the flexibility of your animals’ muscles will help to reduce the chance of injuries occurring whether you are an international rider or competitive agility dog to a happy hacker and a house dog your horses and dogs will definitely thank you for taking the time to stretch!

So, how does stretching prevent injury?

Stretching doesn’t only affect muscle but also the surrounding tendons, ligaments and cartilage. By improving the flexibility and effectiveness of all of these it helps improve the stability around the joints, strengthens and allows more movement (range of motion). With more stable joints high impact sports become less wearing and concussive, meaning the muscle is able to absorb more energy, which then reduces the risk of over rotation, extension and flexion which if they occur can lead to tears in the muscles, tendons, ligaments and cartilage. Horses and dogs with reduced muscle mass (atrophy), which are easily fatigued, are unable to absorb energy as efficiently. This is why stretching is best combined with strength and conditioning exercises to give your pet the best chance at avoiding an injury. Alongside muscle strengthening, stretching, as its main goal, is carried out to improve your animals’ flexibility and elasticity. The further a muscle, tendon or ligament can stretch the less likely it is for failure to occur when put under strain.

While stretching can be useful to prevent injuries it can also aid the rehabilitation process post-injury or operation. During rehabilitation things have to be started off slowly to allow time to adjust and monitor ability and comfort. It has been found that a slow increase in frequency of stretches leads to faster rehabilitation, accelerates healing rates allowing a faster return to full function. By stretching during rehabilitation it strengthens the muscles to provide stability and reduces fatigue, reduces the formation of scar tissue which increases the flexibility of the muscle/tendon /ligament you are targeting and all leads to the increased awareness of the limb/what you are targeting to improve range of motion and proprioception.

What do we need to take into account?

- Ability

- Level of current exercise

- Amount of muscle atrophy

- Type of injury

- Stage of injury

Although stretching has its benefits we do need to be careful as they can be just as harmful if not carried out correctly. Whether that is because the stretch is carried out unsafely/incorrectly, when a patient is over stretched (past the point of their ability) or the stretch was held for too long. Over stretching, stretching to the point of failure, even just once can be enough to cause injury more often than not tears in the fibres occur. When stretching is carried out daily in horses DOMS (delay onset muscle soreness) occurs whereas with your dog daily stretching has its benefits. However, this is all dependent on the injury (if there is one).

There are so many variables involved with stretching that influence how many repetitions, how long the stretch is held and the type of stretches chosen which is why each individual case requires their own plan to suit theirs and their owner’s needs. This is to ensure the capabilities of the animal is met, the stretches are performed correctly and safely (through guidance of your physio) and does not risk the chance of injury or re-injury.

Worth a read:

Page, P. (2012). Current concepts in muscle stretching for exercise and rehabilitation. International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy, 7(1):109-19

Frick, A. (2010). Stretching Exercises for Horses: Are They Effective? Journal of Equine Veterinary Science, 30(1), 50-59. doi:10.1016/j.jevs.2009.12.001