Much like us humans, sprains and strains are some of the most common injuries we see in our dogs.
Dogs are at their happiest when they're playing, running, and getting into all kinds of hijinks. One wrong step can take down even a strong and healthy young pup.
And, as dogs age, their bodies become even more fragile and prone to injury.
Dogs are naturally built to be able to run fast and jump high. But those speedy, strong legs take a pounding, and their hips and legs don't have the same level of flexibility as humans. Their knees are forward, they stand on their toes, and their ankles are off the ground. One too many hard landings or a poorly-timed step into a hole can easily cause a muscle sprain.
If you hear your dog yelping in pain or see them start limping, it's time to pause and assess what's going on in your little buddy's body.
Read below on how to spot the signs of a sprained leg, distinguish between a sprain and other dog leg injuries, and how to properly treat a sprained leg.
How can I tell if my dog sprained his leg?
The most challenging part when a dog first gets injured is the inability to communicate. While they can certainly share with us that something is wrong, they can't come over to us and say, "Hey, I think I sprained my leg. I can still bear weight, but I'm at a 7/10 on the pain scale so maybe let's take me to the doc."
When our dogs are in pain, they give us physical cues that something is wrong. They helplessly look to us for comfort and safety when they're feeling vulnerable. We need to take the extra time to follow these signals closely and get a better read on the severity of our pup's injury.
Surefire signs of a sprained leg
If your dog is experiencing a combination of the following, you're likely dealing with a leg sprain or other injury:
- Yelping during the initial injury
- Whimpering in pain
- A swollen joint or paw
- Excessive licking around the area
- Red discoloration or inflammation
- Decreased physical activity
- Loss of appetite
What is a leg sprain?
A leg sprain damages one or more ligaments that connect a dog's bones in a joint. It often happens when the leg twists at an unnatural angle or gets a sudden blow from the wrong angle.
Sprains damage the joint itself and commonly occur in our pups' wrist and knee joints.
Sprains are more severe than muscle strains, as the former can have lasting damage and cause arthritis in the joint if not treated swiftly and correctly.
Sprains can be one of three grades:
- Grade 1 is a minor tear with an undamaged joint
- Grade 2 is a more massive tear of the ligament, with the partial function of the joint
- Grade 3 is a severely damaged or completely torn ligament.
Fractures vs. sprains
Unless you're a professional vet, it can be challenging to determine if your dog's leg is broken or sprained.
For a broken or fractured leg, your dog may not be able to put any weight on the injured limb. In the case of a small fracture, some weight-bearing may still be possible.
In the case of a break, the dog will likely be in severe pain. If the bone protrudes from the skin or the leg's shape looks strange, it is likely broken.
On the other hand, your dog is likely dealing with a sprained leg if they can bear some weight on the leg or are in moderate pain. A very severe sprain may present itself with the same symptoms as a broken bone.
Get a proper diagnosis
You can initially assess the injury yourself at home, but do NOT touch the hurt leg, as you may worsen the damage.
If the dog is in moderate or severe pain and the injury looks serious, get them to the vet clinic as soon as you can.
If the injury doesn't seem as severe, wait up to 48 hours for the symptoms to subside. If they don't improve within that time, whisk them off to the vet ASAP to get a proper diagnosis of the injury.
The vet will ask you some questions about what exactly happened and specific symptoms your pup is showing.
After that, they perform a careful physical exam of the area and potentially order x-rays, an MRI, an ultrasound, or a scope of the injury.
Depending on the severity of the sprain, your dog may need a splint or brace. For Grade 2 or 3 sprains, surgery will likely happen before your pup can start recovering.
How to properly treat a dog's sprained leg at home
Once you've seen the vet and your pup has received the required care from a professional, the long road to recovery begins back at home, with you as the primary caregiver. Ask any questions to your vet about after-care, especially if your pup needed corrective surgery. Keep the following in mind to keep healing running as smoothly as possible.
Your vet will prescribe or fit your little one with a proper fitting brace or splint for their injury. You may need to keep this on during the first few days to weeks of recovery to keep the foot stable while it's in such a compromised position.
You may also receive a prescription for anti-inflammatory medicines from the vet to help reduce your doggo's pain and swelling during the difficult first days. Administer these as recommended.
Never, EVER, give your dog human anti-inflammatory medicines, like Advil. These can be fatally harmful to your furry friend.
Hot and cold presses
Another part of the first few days of recovery may be hot and cold presses.
Cold therapy should be started soon after the injury to reduce swelling and inflammation. Always keep a towel between your pup's skin and the icepack.
Place the ice on the affected leg area for up to 10 minutes, then remove for at least 10 minutes. Repeat 2-3 times a day for the first few days.
Use heat after the first 48 hours of injury. Place a heated pad on the area in 10-minute increments, once or twice a day. Heat can provide your pet with some pain relief and comfort to the region.
Getting enough rest
It can be pretty challenging to keep our dogs still for long - when they're well, they're always on the go.
They may not be able to recognize that they need to stay off of their injury for a while. You'll likely need to work to keep your dog from moving around too much for the first few days.
Set up a comfy, inviting bed for your pup, and discourage movement other than what's necessary.
If you're struggling to keep the dog immobile, consider crating your dog to discourage harmful movement for the first 24-48 hours.
Massaging the leg
After the initial intense pain has subsided, a gentle massage can help relieve your dog's pain and keep the muscles, which likely haven't been used much, from getting incredibly tight.
Your vet may also prescribe physiotherapy for your dog to rehabilitate the leg and regain strength and function.
Helping your pup get around
We can limit a certain amount of movement through the first few days. But our dogs still need to do the necessary activities to navigate around the house.
If your dog needs to get up and downstairs, lift and carry them up and down for the first few days to avoid reinjuring the area.
Pups should also avoid jumping up and down on chairs, into cars, and beds. Get a pet ramp for bed and other critical areas around your home to take the pressure off of your dog's joints. They can gently walk up and down the ramps to come and go as they please and maintain some level of independence.
Slowly reintroducing walking
Your dog will need to start walking again and strengthening the injured leg. Get the green light from the vet to start walking and take it very slowly.
Leash the dog to control their speed and take slow gentle walks. Start with just a short walk around the block.
Pay close attention to the dog's cues - don't push them to go further if they seem sore and tired. Increase speed and distance very slowly, as overuse will slow down the healing process.
How long does a sprained leg take to heal?
A sprain can take weeks to months to heal, depending on the severity of the initial injury. Be patient, as trying to speed along the healing process leads to overuse of the leg before it's ready and can prolong the process.
Final notes: finishing the recovery process
The recovery process is different for every pup. If you suspect a sprain, you should always let your vet assess the injury, as treatment varies depending on the location and severity.
Your pup will likely need lots of love and comfort, along with their gentle recovery program. They don't understand what's happening, which can be emotionally disturbing for them.
With a proper recovery program, your dog will be back and ready to chase some more squirrels in a few weeks or months!