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Sprains and Strains in Dogs

What Are Sprains and Strains in Dogs?

Sprains and strains in dogs are akin to those experienced by humans. Dogs, like us, possess a musculoskeletal system comprising muscles, tendons, ligaments, cartilage, joints, and bones, all susceptible to injury during vigorous activities like running, jumping, or playing, or even from a misstep in the yard. While some injuries may resolve with rest, others necessitate veterinary intervention.

The terms “sprain” and “strain” are often used interchangeably, denoting soft tissue injuries that do not involve bones. Specifically, a sprain refers to a ligament stretch or tear, while a strain denotes damage to the muscle or tendon. Ligaments are sturdy bands of connective tissue linking two bones, whereas tendons connect muscles to bones.

Soft tissue injuries typically elicit immediate pain in dogs, often manifesting as limping or favoring of the injured limb. Such lameness may coincide with warmth or swelling in the affected area. An example akin to a human sprained ankle illustrates the discomfort: though no bones are broken, walking becomes painful and challenging.

Types of Sprains and Strains in Dogs

  • Iliopsoas muscle strain: This involves injury to the muscle in the hip area.
  • Supraspinatus tendinopathy: This pertains to injury affecting the tendon in the shoulder.
  • Bicipital tendinopathy: This refers to injury affecting the tendon in the arm.
  • Achilles tendon injury/avulsion (rupture): This involves injury affecting the tendon in the heel.
  • Carpal hyperextension: This is an injury affecting the ligaments in the wrist.
  • Cranial cruciate ligament (CCL) injury: This is an injury affecting the ligament in the knee area.


If your dog has a soft tissue injury, they might exhibit the following symptoms:

  • Limping (not bearing full weight on a leg)
  • Difficulty rising from a sitting position or being slow to sit down from standing
  • Reduced activity levels
  • Heat around the injury site
  • Swelling
  • Difficulty jumping or avoiding stairs
  • Decreased interest in playing
  • Stiffness
  • Vocalizations (whining, displaying signs of discomfort)


Sprains and strains in dogs result from minor trauma, often caused by specific actions. Sprains typically occur when a joint is twisted in the wrong direction, leading to the pulling, stretching, or tearing of ligaments.

Strains, on the other hand, commonly arise due to overuse or excessive force exerted on tendons or muscles. This can happen during vigorous physical activities such as agility tests, running, jumping, or rough play with other dogs. Even simple actions like descending stairs improperly or awkwardly leaping off furniture can cause injury.

Highly athletic dogs, engaging in frequent high-impact activities, are more susceptible to muscle strains like the iliopsoas muscle strain. Instances such as going splay-legged during a run can strain this muscle-tendon junction.

The cranial cruciate ligament (CCL) in dogs, akin to the ACL in humans, is a frequent site for sprains. Larger breeds are particularly prone to CCL tears. Dogs with CCL injuries often possess a steeper angle in their knee joint, placing increased stress on the ligament compared to dogs without this genetic predisposition.

Cruciate ligament tears can occur due to sudden twisting motions, such as stepping into a hole or jumping while turning.


When suspecting a sprain or strain in your dog, veterinarians initiate diagnosis with a comprehensive physical examination. They observe your dog’s movements and may conduct range-of-motion tests on the joints to identify any limitations. Palpation of each joint in the affected limb is performed to detect heat, swelling, and signs of discomfort. In cases where a torn cranial cruciate ligament (CCL) is suspected, veterinarians typically assess for cranial drawer, an abnormal sliding motion in the knee joint indicative of ligament damage.

Following the identification of the source of pain in the leg, veterinarians may recommend X-rays to rule out underlying fractures or other orthopedic conditions like hip or elbow dysplasia, arthritis, bone cancer, or infection. X-rays also aid in assessing the extent of secondary damage to the joint following a soft tissue injury. In the aftermath of a CCL tear, the knee joint may develop bone spurs as a response to the body’s production of new bone for joint stabilization.

In certain cases, advanced diagnostic techniques such as ultrasonography, CT scans, or MRI scans may be advised, particularly for athletic dogs engaged in activities like agility or other canine sports. If these advanced tests are deemed necessary, your veterinarian might refer you to an orthopedic specialist.


Treatment for many sprains and strains in dogs often involves rest and the administration of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs) such as Rimadyl, Metacam, or Galliprant.

During the rest period, it’s crucial to minimize your dog’s activity level. Restrict them to leash walks only for elimination purposes, avoiding running, jumping, or playing. Preventing them from jumping on furniture or navigating stairs is important to reduce stress on the joints. Utilizing a kennel can help ensure your dog remains adequately rested.

If your veterinarian prescribes NSAIDs, follow the label instructions diligently. Should you observe any adverse effects like diarrhea, vomiting, or loss of appetite, discontinue the medication and promptly consult your veterinarian. Refrain from administering over-the-counter human NSAID medications to dogs, as they can have serious, even life-threatening reactions due to their heightened sensitivity to this class of drugs and inappropriate dosages.

In certain soft tissue injury cases where feasible, cold pack therapy may be recommended if your dog is cooperative. This involves applying a bag of frozen vegetables to the affected area of your dog’s leg for 5-10 minutes to alleviate discomfort. Occasionally, your veterinarian may suggest physical therapy following a rest period. They are best positioned to determine an appropriate physical therapy plan if necessary.

Surgery for Sprains or Strains in Dogs

In certain cases, such as CCL tears, surgery may be necessary for the treatment of sprains or strains in dogs. There exist various approaches to effectively address a CCL tear, with options tailored to the specific needs of the dog.

For large-breed dogs weighing at least 50 pounds, TPLO surgery is often recommended. This procedure involves surgical cuts that alter the angle of the joint and reduce the forces exerted on the cruciate ligament, followed by the placement of a metal plate on the bone. TPLO surgery is typically performed by an orthopedic surgeon and may require referral to a specialty hospital.

On the other hand, smaller-breed dogs may find relief through a surgical procedure known as lateral suture. Many general practice veterinarians offer this surgery, which involves surgically accessing the joint and inserting a sterile implant to function as a synthetic ligament replacement for the torn ligament.

Some dogs, due to age or underlying health issues that preclude anesthesia, may not be candidates for surgery. In such instances, specialty braces can be beneficial. These braces help stabilize the joint while the body naturally produces scar tissue, promoting increased comfort over time.

Other Treatments for Sprains and Strains in Dogs

In the realm of canine sports medicine, veterinarians may explore extracorporeal shock wave therapy to target tendinous scar tissue breakdown in dogs. Additionally, cold laser therapy is utilized to alleviate inflammation and pain.

Supplementation with joint health products like Dasuquin can aid in mitigating cartilage breakdown post-injury, thus safeguarding the joints. Some veterinarians advocate for Adequan injections following an injury to sustain joint health. Adequan supplements the essential components of joint fluid, facilitating joint lubrication. While veterinarians cannot reverse underlying arthritis resulting from joint injuries, this medication can decelerate further cartilage deterioration and enhance joint lubrication, promoting greater comfort during activities like walking, running, or playing.

Recovery and Management

For many soft tissue injuries, recovery typically entails a period of 2-4 weeks of strict rest before your dog regains normal comfort and mobility. Following surgery, such as for a torn CCL, the recovery period may extend to about 8-12 weeks.

During the healing process, it is imperative to restrict your dog’s activity levels. While pain management and anti-inflammatory medications are crucial for restoring comfort and limiting scar tissue formation, they can mask pain, prompting many dogs to resume normal activities immediately. Pet owners must be vigilant in preventing their dogs from overexerting themselves during recovery from a sprain or strain.

Outdoor activities should be supervised with a leash to prevent sudden movements like chasing squirrels or running along the fence line to bark at other dogs. Utilizing a kennel can help segregate an injured dog from other active dogs in the household, ensuring minimal physical interaction. If managing your dog’s activity level proves challenging during the recovery phase, consult your veterinarian about the possibility of administering a sedative like trazodone to facilitate adequate rest and healing.

Prevention of Sprains and Strains in Dogs

While some sprains and strains may stem from inherent genetic tendencies, there are measures you can take to safeguard your dog and minimize the risk of injury. Limit their exposure to common sources of harm by refraining from letting them roam on uneven or unfamiliar terrain.

Be attentive to your dog’s exertion levels during exercise and play. Most dogs regulate their activity and rest appropriately, but there are instances where they might push themselves beyond their limits, especially in exciting environments like dog parks or during adventures. If your dog appears excessively fatigued—manifested by persistent panting or difficulty moving—consider adjusting the pace. Take them for a leisurely walk and change the scenery to lower their heart rate and allow them to reconnect with their body, thereby preventing overexertion.

Maintaining an optimal weight can significantly reduce the risk of injury. Overweight dogs face heightened strain and pressure on their joints, particularly when engaging in activities like jumping off furniture or sporadic bursts of high activity. Dogs at a healthy weight, coupled with regular exercise, are less prone to soft tissue injuries. The term “weekend warriors” applies not only to humans but also to dogs that lead relatively sedentary lives during the week, then embark on extensive exercise sessions over the weekend. Such dogs are more susceptible to injury as their muscles and joints aren’t conditioned for regular, intense activity.

Sprains and Strains in Dogs FAQs

Can my dog’s sprain heal without treatment?

Sprains can often heal on their own with rest and time. If your dog is eating and drinking normally, maintaining regular energy levels, and behaving normally, rest may be sufficient. However, if your dog’s condition doesn’t show improvement each day or fails to return to normal mobility within 10-14 days, a veterinary examination is important. Depending on the severity of the sprain, additional treatment may be necessary.

Can a dog walk with a sprained leg?

Yes, dogs can walk with a sprained leg, but it’s advisable to limit their activity as much as possible. Only leash-walk them when necessary for outdoor activities. Avoid allowing them to engage in any strenuous play involving running, jumping, or roughhousing. During the recovery period, utilize a kennel as much as possible to ensure proper rest. 

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