What Are Sprains and Strains in Dogs?
The dog's body, like the human body, has a musculoskeletal system that has muscles, tendons, ligaments, cartilage, joints, and bones. All of these structures can be injured while running, jumping, or playing, or even by taking a bad step in the backyard. Sometimes these injuries are mild and self-limiting, resolving on their own after some rest. Other times, they are more serious and require veterinary help.
The terms “sprain” and “strain” are often used interchangeably. They are called soft tissue injuries because they are orthopedic injuries that do not affect any bones.
Technically, a sprain is a stretch or tear in a ligament, and a strain is an injury to the muscle itself or the tendon. Ligaments are bands of strong connective tissue that connect two bones together, while tendons are bands of connective tissue that connect muscles to bones.
When soft tissue injuries occur, there is usually immediate pain. Dogs will often limp or favor the injured leg. This lameness may be accompanied by heat or swelling of the painful leg. Spraining your ankle is an example of a soft tissue injury. None of the bones in the ankle are broken, but it is still painful and hard to walk on that foot.
Types of Sprains and Strains in Dogs
Iliopsoas muscle strain: injury to the muscle in the hip
Supraspinatus tendinopathy: injury to the tendon in the shoulder
Bicipital tendinopathy: injury to the tendon in the arm
Achilles tendon injury/avulsion (rupture): injury to the tendon in the heel
Carpal hyperextension: injury to the ligaments in the wrist
Cranial cruciate ligament (CCL) injury: injury to ligament in the knee
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Symptoms of Sprains and Strains in Dogs
If your dog has a soft tissue injury, they may show the following signs:
Lameness (not putting full weight on a leg)
Difficulty getting up from sitting or slow to sit down from standing
Heat at the injury site
Trouble jumping or avoiding stairs
Vocalizing (whining, acting like they’re in pain)
Causes of Sprains and Strains in Dogs
Sprains and strains are injuries that occur any time there is minor trauma. Sprains are usually the result of twisting a joint the wrong way so that the ligament is pulled, stretched, or torn.
Strains are often caused by overuse, or too much force on the tendon or muscle. This can occur with intense physical activity, like agility tests, running, jumping, or roughhousing with other dogs. Suddenly taking off to chase a squirrel or wrestling with another dog at the dog park can result in a soft tissue injury. Sometimes just going down the stairs and skipping a step or jumping off the bed awkwardly can lead to injury as well.
Highly athletic dogs are more prone to muscle strains, like iliopsoas muscle strain, as they engage in more high-impact activity. Accidentally going splay-legged when running can also lead to strain on this muscle-tendon junction.
The cranial cruciate ligament (CCL) in the dog acts like the ACL in the human knee and is a common site for sprains in dogs. Large-breed dogs more commonly are affected by tears in their CCL. Dogs with CCL injury often have a more steep angle in their knee joint between the bone and the ligament, and that puts more force on the ligament than in dogs who do not carry this trait in their genes.
Cruciate ligament tears can occur secondary to physical activity—from sudden twisting, like stepping in a hole or jumping while turning.
How Veterinarians Diagnose Sprains and Strains in Dogs
If a sprain or strain is suspected in your dog, the veterinarian will start by doing a full physical exam. They will watch how your dog moves and may put your dog’s joints through range-of-motion tests to figure out if there are any restrictions in movement. They will feel each joint in the affected limb and look for heat, swelling, and signs of discomfort. If a torn CCL is suspected, they will likely check for something called cranial drawer, which is an abnormal sliding motion in the knee joint that is not present when the ligament is intact.
Once the veterinarian has determined which part of the leg is the source of the pain, they may recommend x-rays. These can help to rule out underlying fractures or other orthopedic disease like hip or elbow dysplasia, arthritis, bone cancer, or infection. X-rays can also help the doctor determine how much secondary damage has occurred in the joint following a soft tissue injury. After a CCL tear, the knee joint may develop bone spurs as the body produces new bone to stabilize the joint.
Occasionally, advanced diagnostics like ultrasonography, CT, or MRI are recommended, especially in athletic dogs that compete in agility or other canine sports. If these tests are recommended, your veterinarian may refer you to an orthopedic specialist.
Treatment of Sprains and Strains in Dogs
If rest is recommended, it is important to keep your dog’s activity level as low as possible. Leash walk only when taking them outside to eliminate. No running, jumping, or playing is allowed when your dog is under a strict rest order. Avoid letting them jump up on furniture or go up and down stairs, as these activities put force on the joints. Utilize the kennel as much as possible to keep them well-rested.
If your veterinarian prescribes your dog an anti-inflammatory medication, be sure to follow the label instructions. If you notice any side effects such as diarrhea, vomiting, or loss of appetite, stop the medication and contact your veterinarian right away. Do not give any over-the-counter human NSAID medications, as dogs are more sensitive to this class of drugs and may have serious, even life-threatening reactions to inappropriate doses of these medications.
Cold pack therapy may be recommended in some soft tissue injuries if your dog will cooperate. To accomplish this, you can use a bag of frozen vegetables and hold it over the affected region of your dog’s leg for 5-10 minutes to provide relief. Sometimes physical therapy may be recommended following a period of rest. Your veterinarian is the best person to determine a physical therapy plan if needed.
Surgery for Sprains or Strains in Dogs
Some sprains, like CCL tears, may require surgery for treatment. There are many approaches to successfully treating a CCL tear, and options vary depending on the dog. Large-breed dogs, those weighing at least 50 pounds, often require TPLO surgery, where a metal plate is placed on the bone following some surgical cuts that change the angle of the joint and decrease the forces acting on the cruciate ligament. This surgery is done by an orthopedic surgeon and often requires a referral to a specialty hospital.
Smaller-breed dogs may benefit from a surgery called a lateral suture. Many private practitioners offer this surgery. It involves surgically entering the joint and running a sterile implant into the joint that acts like a false ligament to replace the ligament that was torn.
Some dogs are too old or have underlying health conditions that rule out anesthesia. These patients may benefit from specialty braces that work to stabilize the joint while the body produces scar tissue to increase comfort over time.
Other Treatments for Sprains and Strains in Dogs
In canine sports medicine, extracorporeal shock wave therapy may be pursued to break down tendinous scar tissue. Some dogs may also benefit from cold laser therapy aimed at decreasing inflammation (swelling) and pain. Joint health supplements, like Dasuquin, may help to slow cartilage breakdown following an injury to protect the joints.
Some veterinarians recommend Adequan injections after an injury, to maintain joint health. Adequan provides the building blocks of joint fluid to help lubricate the joints. While vets cannot undo underlying arthritis that may result from injury to joints, this medication can slow further cartilage breakdown and lubricate those joints so that there is less grinding and more comfort when the dog is walking, running, or playing.
Recovery and Management of Sprains and Strains in Dogs
For many soft tissue injuries, recovery involves 2-4 weeks of strict rest before your dog is back to normal comfort and mobility. After surgery such as for a torn CCL, recovery may be longer, about 8-12 weeks.
While your dog is healing, it’s important to limit their activity. While pain and anti-inflammatory medications are important to restore comfort and limit scar tissue formation, they do block pain, and many dogs will immediately try to go back to normal activity. Pet parents must work hard to prevent their dogs from overdoing it while recovering from a sprain or strain.
Use the leash for all outdoor time to keep them from suddenly bolting after a squirrel or running the fence line to bark at another dog. Use the kennel as much as possible if you have another dog they like to wrestle with in the home, keep your injured dog in another room while you are not home. If you are struggling to keep your dog’s activity level down during the recovery period, talk to your veterinarian about getting a sedative like trazodone to help create down time during healing.
Prevention of Sprains and Strains in Dogs
While some sprains and strains are unavoidable because of underlying genetic predispositions, you can work to keep your dog safe by limiting their access to common sources of injury. Avoid letting them run on uneven or unfamiliar ground.
Pay attention to your dog’s effort level during exercise and play. Most dogs will self-limit themselves and rest when they have had enough. However, sometimes they will ignore exhaustion when they are having a good time at a dog park or on another adventure. If your dog seems totally exhausted—they can't seem to stop panting or are straining to move—consider changing the pace. Take your dog for a slow walk and seek a change of scenery to bring their heart rate back down and allow them time to reconnect with their body to avoid overdoing it.
Weight management can be very helpful in reducing injury risk. Overweight dogs that jump off furniture or suddenly have rare bouts of high activity put more strain and force on their joints from the excessive weight, leading to breakdown and injury. Dogs at a healthy weight with regular exercise are much less likely to experience soft tissue injury. “Weekend warriors” is a good description not just for humans, but also for dogs that are relatively sedentary throughout the week, then go for long treks or extended periods of exercise on the weekend. These dogs are more susceptible to injury because their muscles and joints are not conditioned for regular, intense exercise.
Sprains and Strains in Dogs FAQs
Can my dog’s sprain heal on its own?
Sprains can often heal on their own with rest and time. As long as your dog is eating and drinking normally and has normal energy and otherwise acting like themselves, rest may be all they need. However, if your dog is not improving a little bit each day, or does not return to complete normal mobility in 10-14 days, it is important that they be checked by a veterinarian. Depending on the severity of the sprain, the injury may require more than just rest.
Can a dog walk on a sprained leg?
Yes, but it is best that activity be kept to a minimum when a dog is suffering from a sprain. Leash-walk only when your pet needs to go outdoors. Avoid letting them engage in any play activities that involve running, jumping, or rough housing. Utilize the kennel as much as possible during the rest period.
Featured Image: iStock.com/Orbon Alija
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