What Is a Sprain and Strain In a Cat?
Sprains and strains are words often used interchangeably, but they are not the same type of traumatic event.
A sprain occurs in ligaments (a band of tissue that connects two bones together, such as the cruciate ligaments that hold the knee together) when they’ve been stretched or torn beyond limits.
A strain happens similarly but in tendons (a band of tissue that connects a muscle to bone, like those seen in the calf muscles attaching to the ankle—i.e., Achilles tendon) or in muscles themselves.
Both types of injuries are often referred to as “soft tissue” injuries, and these injuries are commonly seen in cats.
Sprains and strains can be classified by the following grades:
Grade 1: mild sprain/strain—tearing of the ligament or muscle fibers
Grade 2: moderate sprain/strain—more extensive damage, but ligament/tendon hasn’t been ruptured or torn in two
Grade 3: severe sprain/strain—a rupture has occurred often requiring surgical repair
Types of Sprains and Strains in Cats
Sprains and strains can occur in any ligament, tendon, and muscle, but the most common occurrences are often seen in those associated with the limbs themselves, including:
Cruciate ligaments—those that hold the knee together
Carpal (wrist) joint—known as palmar carpal breakdown, often attributed to a hyperextension injury when cats “catch” themselves when jumping down
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Symptoms of Sprains and Strains in Cats
The most common symptoms found in cats with sprains and strains include limping on one or more of their limbs. Cats may refuse to bear weight on the limb, but it is important to note that they may still use it. Other symptoms may include:
Pain—either from directly touching the limb or manipulating it, or other signs attributed to pain such as decreased appetite, reclusiveness, or aggression
Swelling or heat on the limb
Decreased range of motion in the joint
Laxity or instability of the joint
Causes of Sprains and Strains in Cats
Most often, soft tissue injuries like sprains and strains occur when cats overexert themselves, either from jumping, running, or playing too rough. Traumatic injuries can also occur in cuts, fights, and falls. Overweight cats and cats with arthritis or other musculoskeletal problems such as patellar luxation are more at risk than others. Kittens are also more at risk because of their rambunctious behavior, and they are prone to developing more injuries than adult cats.
How Veterinarians Diagnose Sprains and Strains in Cats
A physical exam is the best method for diagnosing your cat’s source of discomfort. Palpating the limbs and putting them through range of motion exercises, feeling the joints and evaluating your cat walk (videos taken at home are more helpful than watching your cat walk in the clinic!) is usually enough to localize the source of discomfort and pain.
X-rays of the limb, joint taps (where a sample of joint fluid is obtained for evaluation), or referral for an ultrasound, MRI, and CT are usually recommended to ensure that no fracture or dislocation is found. Keep in mind that x-rays alone won’t diagnose a soft tissue injury. Blood work is often recommended, especially if medications are going to be prescribed to verify that the kidneys and liver are healthy enough to metabolize the drugs.
Treatment of Sprains and Strains in Cats
For most sprains and strains, medications such as NSAIDs (Onsior, meloxicam) or pain medications (gabapentin, tramadol, buprenorphine) are prescribed to treat the discomfort and pain, and they also help speed up the recovery process by easing inflammation.
Cage rest and limited activity (most often by isolating the cat in a room such as a bathroom) while healing is extremely helpful to ensure that your cat recuperates and heals appropriately, and to make sure they don’t reinjure themselves. They can be gradually reintroduced to activity and exercise after several weeks of confinement. If your cat is an outdoor cat, be sure to keep her inside while she heals.
Not all cases of sprains require medical intervention—just like in humans—so talk with your veterinarian to determine the best treatment plan for your cat. Do not give your cat any medication without authorization, because many human medications such as Tylenol are toxic to cats. Non-medication alternatives to treat sprains include laser therapy, acupuncture, and physical therapy. In rare and severe cases, surgery may be required.
Recovery and Management of Sprains and Strains in Cats
The good news is that for most sprains and strains, your cat should be back to normal in a matter of days or weeks. When pain medications and treatment begin, your cat will begin to feel better and can be more likely to reinjure herself by running or playing before the injury has fully healed. Ensuring that she is confined to a limited space for this time is paramount to a speedy recovery. Be sure to follow all your veterinarian’s recommendations, including finishing the course of medication prescribed. Should limping recur or persist past the timeframe of recovery, return to the vet for additional care and diagnostics, because something else may be the cause.
Prevention of Sprains and Strains in Cats
Kittens, more so than adults, are very curious and adventurous. And if your cat seems accident-prone, you may want to limit the amount of jumping and leaping she does at home. Teaching her from a young age to use stairs instead of jumping, and keeping her off counters and other high places, can help prevent major injuries. Installing a “catio” or leash training your cat to go for walks can also limit the risks your cat takes.
Sprains and Strains in Cats FAQS
Can a sprain heal on its own?
With time and a little bit of TLC, the good news is that most sprains will heal uneventfully. However, your cat may still be in pain during this process and may need some medication to help aid the recovery.
Can a cat walk on a sprained leg?
Cats can most definitely walk on a sprained leg; however, you may notice a slight limp or favoring of the injured limb. If so, or if your cat has been diagnosed with a sprain, be sure to follow your veterinarian’s recommendations, which will include exercise restriction or cage rest. Just because your cat can walk on the limb doesn’t mean she should.
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