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Strains and Sprains Spell Pain for Dogs

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Our four-legged friends stand on their toes, ankles in the air, knees forward. Imagine doing that all day and you’ll have a better idea of the weight and stress your dog puts on his muscles and joints. It takes lots of energy, strength, and flexibility to chase squirrels, scratch behind ears, wrestle with playmates, jump on beds, and leap for toys.

Every now and then dogs overdo it, asking just too much of their front legs (shoulders, elbows, wrists, and toes) or back legs (hips, knees, ankles, and toes). Sprains and strains are common injuries. If you hear your dog yelp, he may need your help.

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Strains vs. Sprains

The words sound alike, but they mean different things.

Strains injure tendons that link muscles and bones. This can happen if your dog stretches too far, too much, or too often. Athletic dogs get strains, but this injury also can happen when a dog slips, falls, or jumps during normal play. In dogs, strains are common in the hips and thighs.

Sprains harm the ligaments that connect bones, which causes joint damage. Sprains can happen to hunting dogs who jump hurdles, as well as to the average dog who may hurt himself taking a hard landing off the couch, or even by something as simple as stepping in a hole. The wrist and knee are common joints for dogs to sprain. One of the most serious injuries is a torn cranial cruciate ligament (CCL), which connects the bones of the knee.

Where Does It Hurt?

The first warning sign of strains or sprains may be that your dog starts to limp or is suddenly lame, meaning he can’t use his leg. If this lasts more than a day or so, or if it happens again and again, it’s time for a visit to the vet.

Both strains and sprains can be chronic (ongoing) or acute (sudden), and can range from mild to severe. Your vet will figure out what kind of injury your dog has based on what you tell her and the results of a physical exam and tests. She’ll want to know when you first noticed a change. You should explain:

  • How your dog is acting differently.
  • What he was doing if you saw the injury happen.
  • What he is or isn’t doing since the injury. Is he sleeping more? Limping? Sitting with his leg extended? Not excited about going for a walk? Stiff? Not eating? These are signs he doesn’t feel well.

The vet will check your dog’s muscles and joints. She’ll look him over first, then touch and press on certain points to see if they’re sore, warm, swollen, or out of place. She’ll want to see him walk, sit, and lie down. She may take X-rays or do an MRI or ultrasound to get a look at damage that can’t be seen from the outside. X-rays show problems with bones. The other kinds of images are better for seeing tissue damage.

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