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, they may need your help.
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 they can’t use their 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 them and the results of a physical exam and tests. They’ll want to know when you first noticed a change. You should explain:
- How your dog is acting differently
- What they were doing when you saw the injury happen
- What they are or aren’t doing since the injury. Are they sleeping more? Limping? Sitting with their leg extended? Not excited about going for a walk? Stiff? Not eating? These are signs they don’t feel well.
The vet will check your dog’s muscles and joints. They’ll look the dog over first, then touch and press on certain points to see if they’re sore, warm, swollen, or out of place. They’ll want to see him walk, sit, and lie down. They 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.
The Road to Recovery
It takes the same kinds of things to get your dog back on four feet as it would take to get you back on two.
Your vet will decide how to treat your dog based on whether they have a strain or a sprain, and just how bad it is. They’ll likely try to avoid surgery as a first line of treatment unless a tendon or ligament is torn.
In a typical plan to treat strains and sprains, your vet may tell you to:
- Give your dog nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to ease inflammation. Make sure to ask what is safe to give them. Some over-the-counter NSAIDs for people can cause serious illness and even death for a dog.
- Apply an ice pack or heating pad.
- Make sure your dog rests. Don't let them jump or run. Sometimes you may need to crate them.
- Walk your dog on a leash, taking it slowly at first.
- Use a brace or support to hold your dog’s muscle or joint in place.
- Try physical therapy, such as walk on an underwater or land treadmill, balancing on a ball or board.
- Massage the area.
- Put your dog on a diet.
Surgery is in order for otherwise healthy dogs that don’t get better, keep injuring themselves, or have a torn tendon or ligament. If your vet didn’t do an MRI or ultrasound the first time around, they may want to see these images before doing surgery.
Depending on the type of surgery, you’ll need to keep your dog quiet and limit his activity for a week or longer. The vet may use a bandage or brace to support the joint. If your dog moves too much or too soon after surgery, they could re-injure himself. Physical therapy can help them get back to being active at the right pace.
Whether your dog has injured themselves before or you just want to keep them from getting a strain or sprain, make sure they stay at a healthy weight and get regular exercise. Obesity and inactivity make these injuries more likely.