Atrophy: Building Strong Muscles Through Swimming and Massage


Many of the dogs who come to swim at Wellsprings K9 suffer from muscle atrophy. Often owners will ask, “How long will it take to rebuild my dog’s muscles?” This is a difficult question to answer, but as a well-read Doberman, I’m going to do my best to answer it.

First, you need to know that atrophy (or muscle wasting) is the loss of muscle tissue and is categorized by the Maryland Medical Center in two different ways – Disuse and Neurogenic. Disuse atrophy is pretty self-explanatory as it describes the loss of muscle tissue because the muscles are not used. It has many causes, but the end result is that the dog refuses to use the effected limb.

For instance, Rosie the Boxer was hit by a car in her first year of life and while the surgeons at the Washington State School of Veterinarian Medicine did a great job reconstructing her leg, she doesn’t use her right rear leg as much as she would if it hadn’t been injured. Now at six years old, with the onset of arthritis in the effected limb and years of limited use of her leg, the atrophy is evident.

Saber’s (the Labrador) atrophy, on the other hand, is a result of the early onset of hip dysplasia caused by congenital malformation. Hip dysplasia is caused by a loose fit of the hip bone in its socket. According to the American College of Veterinary Surgeons, hip dysplasia is a result of “…the abnormal motion of the hip stretching the fibrous joint capsule and ligament connecting the head of the femur to the pelvis, producing pain and lameness.  The acetabulum (the hip socket) is easily deformed by continual movement of the femoral head.  Micro fractures of the acetabular bone may occur, causing further pain and lameness in the immature dog.”

Hip dysplasia results in crippling lameness and painful arthritis of the joints and while much can be done to slow down the progression of the condition, it is degenerative and irreversible. While Saber is still in the early stages of hip dysplasia, he will often not use his left rear leg as he would if he didn’t suffer from dysplasia.

While atrophy from disuse can have many causes (injury, degenerative conditions, surgery, age, etc.), neurogenic atrophy is caused by nerve damage. The nerves can be damaged for many reasons (even some of the same reasons that cause disuse atrophy) and nerve damage can also cause disuse, but the damage to the nerve is the root cause of neurogenic muscle wasting.

Henry the Dachshund is an example of neurogenic atrophy. After a spinal injury, the nerves in his back were so damaged that Henry lost complete use of his rear legs. Again, the nerve damage made it so that Henry could not use his back legs and as a result the disuse resulted in atrophy.

In all of these cases, muscle atrophy results. But here’s the tricky part: While a dog may have muscle atrophy evident two weeks after surgery, for example, the time it will take to rebuild the muscle tissue will take much longer than two weeks. Some research shows that for every one day of non-use, it takes three days of use to compensate. Therefore, if a dog doesn’t use her back leg for two weeks (14 days) it will take six weeks (or 42 days) of use to see the muscle mass increase. To complicate matters even more, if a post-operative dog was in top muscle tone before surgery then muscle mass returns more quickly as the muscle memory is more readily available. But if the post-operative dog had poor tone prior to surgery, then it will take even longer to build muscle after surgery or injury. What took two weeks to atrophy may take three months to rebuild.

Wow! That’s a long time indeed, but luckily there are things you can do to help your dog build his muscles. It’s important to remember, though that the underlying cause of atrophy will determine the rate and possibilities of recovery. But all things being equal, muscle can rebuild through exercise, massage, stretching, and diet.

Leashed walks can be beneficial but it’s important to walk slowly making certain that the effected limb is used. Dogs have a tendency to just pick up the limb since three legs work just as well as four in our minds. This is why swimming is so beneficial. Most dogs, even dogs who don’t use their limb much on land, will use it or begin to use it in the water. Exercise increases circulation and atrophied muscles need blood flow to help in the rebuilding process so non-weight-bearing exercise such as swimming is a great way to encourage your dog to engage those muscles!

When a limb is not used, stiffness and poor range of motion result. When muscles are injured or inactive, scar tissue forms that can severely limit flexibility. Massage and gentle range of motion

exercises are extremely beneficial because it not only increases the blood flow to the muscles, but it offers a safe way to stretch the muscle, remove stagnant waste products, and break down scar tissue, which in turn, increases flexibility.

In addition, the warm water of the pool and the motion of swimming loosens up the muscles and can improve range of motion and flexibility especially in conjunction with skilled massage. As the muscles loosen and range of motion increases, muscles will begin to rebuild. From what I’ve seen in our clients from my perch in the backyard is that at first, there might be increased use of the leg, but the muscles don’t show improved bulk or mass. Then as the dog uses the leg more and more through gentle exercise on land and weekly swim and massage sessions, there’s marked improvement after about 8-10 weeks.

Diet is also a key component in muscle atrophy recovery. Your veterinarian can discuss options with you to help your dog build strong muscles with a nutrition plan. In combination with exercise and massage, specific diets can supply the raw materials needed to help muscle tissue regenerate.


Of course, all of this depends on the cause of the muscle atrophy. Henry, for example, still has limited use of his rear legs but weekly swimming and massage have kept his back legs much stronger than they would have been if he’d done nothing. He can now push himself up and stand on all four legs and while it’s taken a lot of hard work on his part and a lot of dedication by his family, Henry’s atrophied muscles have really benefitted from his time at Wellsprings K9.

Saber, too, is showing improvement in that his hasn’t lost anymore muscle mass, he’s using his effected limb more, and has more pain-free days than he did before he started swim and massage therapy at Wellsprings K9. While his hip dysplasia cannot be cured, he’s receiving everything he needs (massage, exercise, and nutrition) to help him remain active, mobile and as pain-free for as long as possible.

Same with Rosie. While she will never regain all that’s she’s lost, the quality of her life has greatly improved because she is receiving low-impact cardio-vascular exercise as well as stretching and massage to help keep her limber and mobile as she ages.

So, how long does it take to rebuild muscles? Not to sound like a trite Doberman the truthful answer is – it depends. All the factors we’ve discussed above determine the rate at which your dog will regain muscle mass as well as use of the effected limb(s). The bottom line though is that swimming and massage can help with muscle atrophy. If you have any questions about this topic or any other concern, please give us a call (206-935-8299) or email us ( and we’ll be more than happy to answer your questions and start an exercise and massage plan for your dog.


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