Doggie Strains and Sprains
As summer starts warming up the weather, it’s time to remember to warm up our dogs before taking them out for vigorous physical exercise. If you and your dog have begun to resemble couch potatoes over the long, cold winter, your muscles will need some conditioning before you begin jogging or participating in other outdoor sports this summer.
What’s the difference between a sprain and a strain?
Although both are painful, there is an important difference between strains and sprains. Strains are injuries to muscles or tendons, while the more serious sprains involve injury to a ligament.
What do these soft tissue structures do? A ligament stretches across a joint space to hold two bones together. Your dog has ligaments holding the leg bones together and keeping the skeleton properly aligned around the knee and ankle joints.
Muscles can be found in a number of areas. They are attached to bones by tendons, so that when a muscle contracts, the tendon is pulled to move the bone.
Strains and sprains both result from over-extension of these tissues. A stretched out ligament is called a sprain, while an overstretched muscle or tendon is called a strain. A muscle or tendon may tear under the pressure of overstretching, and this is also called a muscle strain. However, torn ligaments are generally not called sprains, as they are much more serious.
If your dog strains a muscle, you will likely see the dog experiencing pain even when he or she is not moving. Although the dog may not yelp, he or she will likely not be as active as normal, and may have a slight limp. The blood vessels inside the damaged muscle may be torn as the muscle stretches, which leads to bleeding into the muscle tissue. The pressure of the leaked blood causes pain even when the dog is lying still.
Most strains can be treated at home using the RICE method: Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation. The hardest first aid method for a muscle strain is to convince your dog to rest. Soon after the injury, your dog will likely rest for a time because of the pain, but as soon as the dog begins to feel better, he or she may be up and running too soon. If your dog refuses to rest, you may have to use a crate to force the issue. You should keep your dog at rest until there are no further signs of pain. Below is a case note from the veterinary file of a dog with a muscle strain.
Molly is a 2-year old Foxhound who stepped into a hole in her backyard two weeks ago, severely straining a shoulder muscle. Her family has tried treatment with ice, aspirin, and prescription anti-inflammatory agents, but the dog is still in severe pain. Because the family appears unwilling or unable to crate the dog to rest the muscle, she will be admitted to this clinic and crated 24 hours a day for seven days to allow the muscle time to heal.
As soon as you notice the dog’s discomfort, try applying ice to the area for 20 minutes every hour or so. After 48 hours, you can change from ice to heat to help the leaked blood in the muscle break down so it can be re-absorbed by the body.
You can control the pressure from bleeding into the muscle tissue by using compression with an Ace bandage. Be careful not to wrap too tightly. You only want to slow down the blood leakage, not cut off circulation to the entire muscle.
If possible, elevate the injured area above the dog’s heart to prevent further swelling. You may also want to give your dog some buffered aspirin to reduce swelling and ease his or her pain. Check with your vet as to the correct dosage. For small dogs, you may need to use baby aspirin, but do not use acetaminophen (Tylenol). Only true aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid) is safe for dogs.
When a ligament is stretched or torn, causing a sprain, veterinarians commonly grade the injury to indicate the extent of the damage. A Grade I sprain means that the ligament is slightly torn, but is still capable of supporting the joint. There will be swelling and pain around the joint area, but range of motion is still close to normal.
In a Grade II sprain, the ligament is more seriously damaged. Although it remains connected to the bones, it is too weak to provide full support to the joint. The dog will have pain and swelling, as well as an inability to fully operate the joint.
A Grade III tear in a ligament is one that involves a complete tear of the tissue connecting the bones. The joint can no longer operate at all because there is nothing holding the bones together.
A sprain usually happens when a dog falls or gets injured during exercise. The dog will begin favoring one of his or her legs, and you will see swelling around the affected joint. Home care is not recommended, other than that the dog should be kept as quiet as possible to prevent further damage. An X-ray is required to confirm that nothing is broken as sprains often accompany fractures, and their symptoms are very similar.
Keep in mind that an X-ray will not reveal soft tissue damage, so your vet will not be able to tell you the grade of a sprain just from an X-ray. Physical examination is the only thing that can determine the extent of the injury.
During the examination, your vet will be looking to see how the joint movement in the affected leg compares with that of the other legs. Stretched out ligaments give the joint a lax feeling, where the bones move more easily than normal. Depending on the extent of the damage, the joint may move pretty normally (Grade I), or it may show a little looseness (Grade II), or it may be totally flexible, as the ligaments aren’t providing any support at all to the joint. Without ligament support, the joint can be hyper-extended such as when a knee is bent totally backward.
You should never attempt to assess ligament damage at home because you can cause further damage to the joint. Examining a torn ligament often involves seeing just how far the joint can be operated in the “wrong” direction, and if you push too hard, you may tear the ligament even further than the original injury did.
Your vet may need to sedate your dog to keep everyone safe during the examination; it’s tough to safely examine a dog who is in extreme pain. In addition, your dog’s pain will cause him or her to fight against the exam because stretching that ligament is so painful. With the dog pushing back against the vet, the doctor won’t be able to tell how much the animal’s range of motion has been affected.
Treating a Sprain
For a Grade I sprain, your vet will likely prescribe an anti-inflammatory medication and a splint to protect the joint during the several weeks it will take for the ligament to recover.
A Grade II sprain may require joint stabilization surgery in addition to a splint and anti-inflammatory medication. For both Grade I and Grade II sprains, full recovery of the joint is usually possible.
For a Grade III sprain, surgery is always indicated. Healing will take a very long time, and recovery may be somewhat less than full. Your dog may never be able to use the joint as he or she once did.
Regardless of the extent of the injury and the nature of the treatment, it is your responsibility to keep the dog confined during recovery. The more rest the dog gets, the better the joint will heal.
Preventing strains and sprains
Strains and sprains are one of the most common types of injuries dogs can experience. They may be the result of sudden trauma such as stepping into a hole or they may be the result of repetitive motion or poor conditioning.
Veterinarian Carol J. Helfer has written extensively on coaching dogs to peak performance and has some advice about preventing muscle injuries.
Her advice is specific to flyball, but can be applied to any dog conditioning program. The three major tenets of muscle injury prevention under any circumstances are conditioning, warming up, and cooling down.
By creating a workable program for conditioning and using warm-up and cool-down routines religiously, I believe we can greatly benefit our companions. The single most important thing a handler can do to lengthen the career of their canine athlete is to keep their dog lean. Conditioning should include strength exercises and endurance exercises. The main purpose [of warming up] is to prepare the body and mind for more strenuous activity…by helping to increase the body’s core temperature…[and] muscle temperature. The main goal of the cool down is to promote recovery and return the body to a pre-exercise or pre-work out level.
For more information, check out this article on canine sprains from PetPlace.com.