February 10, 2021 4 min read

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Limping is one of the more common reasons why you might bring your dog to see his veterinarian outside of regular preventive care. Dogs are already quite good at hiding signs of illness from their owners, so when your pup is limping, there is likely a reason behind it. Sprains and strains are common causes of limping, but how serious are these injuries? Can they cause significant pain? And what can you do to help?  

What are Strains and Sprains in Dogs?

In medicine, the termsprain is sometimes used interchangeably withstrain but they are technically different things. Sprains occur when a ligament is stretched or torn, and strains occur when a tendon or muscle becomes injured. Ligaments are bands of connective tissue that attach bone to bone while tendons are similar bands that connect muscle to bone. Ligaments tend to be a little more flexible than tendons but both are meant to be support structures.

When ligaments and tendons are pushed to their limits, it is possible to stretch them to the point of injury. Muscles can also become injured but tend to heal more quickly than tendons and ligaments. Tendon injuries can be painful for several weeks or months. One of the most common ligamentous injuries in large breed dogs, a cranial cruciate ligament tear, often requires surgical intervention to help resolve lameness.  

Signs of a Sprain or Strain in Dogs

Dogs with these kinds of orthopedic injuries may favor one leg over the other. They may appear to drop weight slightly or quickly pick up the affected limb once they step on it. Severe pain may result in complete non-weight-bearing lameness or “toe-touching” lameness where it looks as though the pup is walking on the tips of their toes.

It may become more difficult for your dog to do normal activities like jumping up on furniture or running. They may actively avoid staircases or other tricky areas. Dogs with sprains or strains may also appear lethargic, tired, and may avoid treats and food if they are feeling poorly enough.

Painful pups may not like it when you touch the painful area and may react to touch by yelping or crying out. Swelling around the joint may become apparent, especially when you compare one limb or joint to its opposite side. If your dog is experiencing severe pain and/or swelling, it is important that you contact your veterinarian right away.

Cause of Sprains and Strains in Dogs

For very athletic and active dogs, there is an increased risk of damage to the tendons, muscles, and ligaments. Most senior dogs develop arthritis which can make it easier to develop sprains and strains, and overweight dogs are also at a higher risk of injury because excess body weight is a tremendous strain on the joints. Genetics will factor in for various breeds like how Labrador Retrievers and German Shepherds are at a higher risk for cranial cruciate ligament tears. However, it is worth noting that all dog breeds, even mixed breeds, are susceptible to these kinds of injuries.

Treatment for Sprains and Strains in Dogs

Many minor strains and sprains resolve with rest for one to two weeks. This means avoiding running, jumping, and playing when possible. For walks outside, it is important to keep your pup on a leash so that he cannot break into a run at a moment’s notice. Many veterinarians also prescribe non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) to help with inflammation and pain but remember that you should never give human anti-inflammatory medication to your dog. Use of an NSAID may be for one week or longer, and if longer courses are prescribed, your vet might recommend blood work to make sure that your dog’s liver and kidneys are healthy. Ice packs can also help with minor injuries and can be used several times a day for a few minutes at a time.

Many sprains and strains are treated in a similar manner. Your veterinarian will examine your pup and discuss with you whether or not x-rays will be necessary to help isolate the cause of your dog’s pain. For sprains and strains that do not resolve with initial outpatient therapy, advanced imaging, and/or a referral to an orthopedic specialist may be necessary. If the immune-mediated joint disease is suspected, additional testing may be necessary to determine the presence of any concurrent disease, and steroids or immunosuppressive medications are prescribed in some of these cases.

In the event of a sprain or strain that requires extensive medical or surgical therapy, additional modalities may help your pup. There are many benefits to the use of acupuncture and physical therapy exercises. Water or swim therapy can help build up strength in the muscles again but minimizes strain on the joints. Cold laser therapy, which is a low-energy beam of light, is used to help with healing and inflammation.

True orthopedic dog beds can help a dog get back on their paws quicker after any sort of injury. The special science behind these dog beds ensures that there is no significant pressure along any part of a dog's body when they're laying on the bed. This allows for a more comfortable laying down position, as well as a healthier one.

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Sprains and strains can affect any breed of dog at any life stage, and they can vary from mild to severe. It is important to identify these injuries early so that you can work to get your pup fast relief. Without treatment, certain sprains and strains can worsen and lead to chronic pain. Most sprains and strains resolve with rest and anti-inflammatory medications while others require additional therapies.  

Meet the Author

Dr. Erica Irish

Erica has worked in the veterinary field since 2006, starting out as a veterinary technician before graduating from the UF College of Veterinary Medicine in 2013. As a general practitioner in an animal hospital, she has many interests and is especially interested in dermatology, cardiology, internal and integrative medicine.