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Canine Thermography for Athletic & Active Dogs

Being active with our dogs is a joyous pursuit for many. But getting the most out of those adventures and activities means keeping our canine companions in good health. Unfortunately, it's often only once clinical signs of dysfunction become apparent that we thoroughly assess our dogs. However, thermal asymmetries are often present before the onset of those clinical signs and can be detected with infrared thermal imaging.

This article will discuss how thermal imaging can benefit the decisions we make for our canine companions, especially active dogs and canine athletes.

What is thermal imaging?

Thermal imaging lets us visualise radiant heat energy emitted or reflected from a body; it's often used at airports to screen passengers for elevated body temperatures. It is also widely used in human sport-science and military applications. Within the medical and veterinarian industries, it is not new. However, its use has become more prevalent as technology advances and allows us to detect minute changes in surface temperature.

The thermal imaging process for dogs is non-invasive and non-contact; it's similar to photographing the dog from different viewpoints. The resulting images provide remarkable insight into the dog's physiological state in an easy-to-read coloured heat map, showing which areas are hot, warm, cool and cold. Ideally, we want to see thermal symmetry on either side of the dog and warmth right down to the toes.

In the patient below, we can see that the thermal profile of both the left and right sides appear even, but there is little heat within the lower limbs. This would indicate that this dog has not warmed up sufficiently, and thus exercising in this state would increase the risk of injury to the intricate structures of the lower limbs.

Figure 1: Thermal Imaging showing Thermal symmetry in lower limbs

Benefits of Canine Thermal Imaging

Early detection of dysfunction is important in reducing risks associated with athletic and active pursuits. This is where thermal imaging plays an important role.

Thermal imaging is a cost-effective tool generally well-tolerated by dogs and does not require sedation. It can be conducted before a veterinary examination, allowing owners to be more informed of their dog's physiological condition and providing a detailed means of communication to help owners pursue a diagnosis or treatment plan.

The application of thermal imaging is not limited to veterinary examinations; it can also be used for those seeking a competitive edge in their sports, to monitor the effects of rehabilitation, or to assess the dog's physiological state when investing in therapeutic treatments.

✔️ Low cost
✔️ Lower stress on the patient
✔️ Whole body images
✔️ Pre-diagnostic tool
✔️ Inform owners & care team
✔️ Location of dysfunctions are easy to see

Thermal Imaging and Traditional Diagnostic Tools

Using thermal imaging as an initial evaluative tool, the entire body surface temperature is analysed for asymmetries and abnormalities. Having all the areas of concern that show up as either hyperthermic or hypothermic identified before further investigation means that diagnostic tools such as x-rays, CT, MIR and ultrasound tools might be used more efficiently. In this manner, thermal imaging complements other imaging tools by providing otherwise unavailable insight.

Searching the thermal patterns for areas of hypothermia is especially helpful in identifying possible nerve-related dysfunction or chronic injuries, as these areas are related to vasoconstriction or a lack of blood flow. Injuries like tendonitis do not readily show on x-ray scans and may require more expensive diagnostics. However, a thermographic evaluation can often be helpful in the differential diagnosis and maintenance of these types of injuries.
Figure 2: dog presenting with intermittent lameness in the right hind limb

For instance, the canine athlete in the images above had intermittent lameness in the right hind limb; x-rays were taken and found unremarkable, and the diagnosis was tendonitis in the right hock

Three weeks after this diagnosis and clearance to return to sport, we can still see thermal imbalances in the trunk region and the hocks. This demonstrates that the canine athlete would have benefited from a more prolonged recovery or rehabilitation period. However, the dysfunction affected a greater area than was identified without thermal imaging, which was limited to the clinical presentation of tendonitis symptoms found in the right hock.

What Conditions can Thermal Imaging be used for?

Since thermal imaging allows us to see areas of heat and cold in the body surface temperature, it can help detect conditions such as:

✔️ Neurological dysfunction
✔️ Muscle injury
✔️ Joint disease
✔️ Inflammatory issues
✔️ Compensatory issues

Often the first signs of injury or illness that owners notice are behavioural changes, such as aggression, unwillingness, or avoidance

However, thermal imaging can be used as a tool for early detection, as signs of dysfunction often appear in the heat map before clinical signs or behavioural changes become apparent. Dr Ronald Riegel, DVM, a leader in veterinary thermal imaging, has recently demonstrated its use in identifying signs of thermal asymmetry and abnormality consistent with the early stages of hip dysplasia.

Since it is non-invasive, thermal imaging can be conducted as regularly as is needed. This can be especially important to handlers of canine athletes wanting to ensure their dogs are in top form for high-level competition. 

It also plays a valuable role at events as it can immediately inform handlers of their dog's state during the warm-up phase. The free webinar, Thermal Imaging in Canine Sports - Improving Welfare for the Individual Athlete, goes into much more detail about thermal imaging in canine sports.

This is an example of thermal imaging being used in canine sports; we can see that the canine athlete is not sufficiently warm in their lower limbs before their event.

Handlers can use this knowledge to help increase blood flow by changing the surface they are working the dog on, adding warmth to specific areas, or increasing the intensity of the warm-up. 

Alternatively, they may decide to withdraw their dog from the event to prevent injury. Using thermal imaging this way informs handlers, allowing them to make more informed choices that lead to better outcomes for their dogs.

Case studies:

Below are examples of how veterinarian thermal imaging was used to inform owners of pet dogs and canine athletes, helping to get their active dogs back out having fun safely.

1. Carpal Injury

In the patient below, we can see points of inflammation in the carpal and metacarpal joints related to carpal hyperextension and overloading of the forelimbs. 
As a result of this being identified in thermographic images, the patient received a higher level of care, including manual therapy, veterinarian assessment and anti-inflammatories. The outcome was positive since the dog was in reduced pain, and imbalances that contributed to the condition were addressed, reducing the load on the forelimbs.

2. Lumbar Nerve & Compensatory Injuries

Neurological dysfunctions and chronic injuries are associated with areas of hypothermia or cooler regions

In the patient below, we can see a marked area of coolness near the hip, with large areas of heat through the thoracic and lumbar regions. In this case, the patient has a lower lumbar neurological condition affecting the hindlimb, and the muscles around the spine are overcompensating as the dog attempts to shift weight off the painful leg. 

Thermal imaging is used to inform the entire care team, monitor the recovery or progress of dysfunction and speak on behalf of the dog, helping them to get appropriate treatment.

Shoulder Inflammation - Early detection

In our next patient, an athlete competing nationally, we see marked thermal asymmetry between the left and right shoulder joints. 

This information allowed the owner to adapt their conditioning and training program, adjust their supplements and begin hydrotherapy. Without the thermal imaging, this dysfunction would have likely gone untreated until clinical signs presented - which means the dog would have suffered for longer as the dysfunction progressed, potentially leading to an absence from the sport and increased recovery time.

When to use thermal imaging

There are many reasons to use veterinary thermal imaging, and these might include the following:

✔️ One-off or regular wellness checks
✔️ To monitor the progress of treatments
✔️ To monitor rehabilitation after an injury
✔️ To monitor the physiological response to a conditioning program
✔️ Warm-up and cool-down assessments
✔️ At the onset of behavioural changes
✔️ To assess the impact of specific equipment

For handlers that want to maximise injury prevention for their active or athletic canine, thermal imaging can be a good option, as it is utilised to detect areas of concern before they become otherwise apparent. 

Looking for minor asymmetries and making small changes to fitness programs can aid in the prevention of long-term issues. Thermal imaging is readily used in this fashion within the human sports medicine field.

Early detection and swift response may reduce the time that the dog is suffering and reduce the likelihood of the issues progressing.

Wellness checks

A wellness check is a great way to get baseline images of your dog, allowing handlers to better monitor for physiological changes. Images are assessed for thermal patterns and asymmetries, and any significant difference in body surface temperature may indicate that further investigation or treatment is required.

In our practice at Canine Body Balance, we conduct wellness checks at all our intake appointments; this allows us to understand better where our canine patients might have hidden pain or dysfunctions.

Thermal Imaging in Canine Conditioning

Since canine conditioning is focused on building the dog's physical condition, which includes strengthening muscles and building endurance and stamina, we can use thermal imaging similarly to how it's applied in sports medicine.

✔️ monitor soft tissue injuries
✔️ assess recovery
✔️ monitor warm-up and cool-down
✔️ evaluate for signs of compensation or imbalanced muscle use

Its application in canine sports is rapidly expanding and is used to inform handlers of the effectiveness of their warm-up or cool-down routine. 

Thermal imaging video of sport dog during warm-up

For example, when active dogs have had a sports injury, thermal imaging can aid in monitoring the recovery progress allowing handlers to make informed decisions about when their dog can safely return to participating in their chosen sport.

Thermal imaging in manual therapies

Manual therapy is just as important for active or athletic dogs as it is for active humans. However, our canine patients can't speak for themselves, which is why thermal imaging is such a powerful tool for canine therapists, as it allows them to gain greater insight into the physiological condition of the dog and tailor their treatments.

Repeating the thermal images after multiple treatments allows the therapist to ensure they are treating not just the presenting condition but any compensatory issues that may arise as the body adjusts to a new state of normality.

Breed-specific Thermal Imaging

Some breeds of dogs are more challenging to assess with thermographic imaging than others, mainly due to coat variations. Coats that are very thick as less likely to produce quality thermal images, so owners of arctic breeds might find less value in this technology than owners of shorter (single or double) coated breeds.

On the other hand, certain breeds will gain increased benefits from regular thermal imaging. 

Those include dog breeds with long backs or that are prone to peripheral nerve issues, as thermal imaging may detect those minute temperature changes before clinical signs of dysfunction are apparent. Owners can then modify their dog's exercise or begin treatment earlier than they might have otherwise.

Keeping your active dog active

Being proactive about keeping your active dog active is the gold standard; handlers can achieve this in many ways. 

For those that want to maximise the time their dogs can safely participate in sports, thermal imaging will play an important role. It is a powerful tool that provides greater insight into the current physiological state of your dog.

Written by Tori Acres from Canine Body Balance (March 2023) for Australian Dog Lover, all rights reserved.

About our writer

Tori Acres is a certified Canine Therapist, Canine Fitness Instructor and qualified Mechanical Engineer based on the Central Coast NSW; she runs Canine Body Balance.

Combining her skills and knowledge in heat transfer and how things move with her detailed knowledge of canine anatomy and biomechanics, Tori aims to help dogs improve their physical condition and move better, so they can stay active for longer.

She is passionate about helping canine athletes reach their full potential and ensuring that pet dogs have the best quality of life through education, thermography, manual therapies, and strategic exercises.

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