How to Spot a Sprained Leg in Dogs

Madelene Hissom · May 20, 2021

Author: Amanda Brahlek

Your dog’s muscles play an important role in their life — they keep them active, having fun, and partaking in physical activity to keep them healthy. Unfortunately, your dog’s muscles are also not 100% indestructible. Like ours, your dog’s muscles can be prone to strains and sprains. These injuries can slow your dog down, and if not spotted in time, lead to life-long damage. With a little insight, you can identify a sprain, respond accordingly, and get your dog back on their paws and feeling great. 

What Causes a Dog to Sprain a Leg? 

Both strains and sprains are the results of a dog overextending or overworking their leg muscles and tendons. These injuries usually occur during strenuous or highly physical activities like running, jumping, or hiking. However, sometimes tripping, falling, slipping, or simply stepping funny can cause strains and sprains. 

Muscle Strain vs. Ligament Sprains 

Strains and sprains are both tears related to your dog’s limbs. A strain is a tear or injury to the tendon, the structure that connects the muscle to the bone. A sprain is an injury to the ligament that connects the bones to one another.  

The most common sprains for dogs include spraining the wrist or knee. Strains, however, are most common in the thigh or hip. 

Why Watching for Sprains and Strains is Vital for Your Dog’s Health 

There are numerous reasons to keep an eye out for sprains and strains in your dog. These issues can become chronic over time, especially if they’re not allowed to heal properly. They can also lead to bone degeneration, muscle weakness, and permanent lameness in the limb. 

Other times, a dog can injure another leg by overcompensating for the sprained leg. This can result in your dog becoming nearly immobilized. 

What to Look for When Spotting a Sprained Leg in Your Dog 

When a dog is injured they have a tendency to overreact or underreact. This may mean that your dog will respond by appearing much more injured than they are (not putting any weight on their foot, for example). Some dogs barely even wince when they get hurt, but with time, will begin to show more obvious signs of injury. Your dog’s response to an injury may also reflect the severity of the sprain. 

The most apparent sign of a sprained leg is that your dog will begin to limp or change their natural gait to accommodate the injured leg. This is because your dog will shift their weight to the uninjured paw to reduce the pain in their injured leg. 

You may also hear your dog cry out when landing, playing, or running. There’s a good chance your dog either pulled a muscle, stepped on something painful, or injured their tendon. 

Other signs include: 

    • A swollen paw 
    • Redness or swollen joints 
    • Reluctance to walk or play 
    • Irritability towards other dogs or people 
    • Crying out from time to time when walking 
    • Sensitivity to touch of the injured area 

When to Contact Your Vet 

If you notice your dog limping, it can be quite frightening. There’s no need to panic, though. Minor sprains will heal on their own, and sometimes a dog will immediately begin limping if they perceive they may be injured even if they’re not. This is kind of like a human’s reaction to hitting their funny bone. You may immediately grab your elbow but within a minute the pain and discomfort dissipate. 

So, if you notice signs that your dog may have sprained their leg, you want to give them a day before contacting your vet. Of course, if your dog is showing signs of acute pain or you believe the injury may be more severe, such as a broken bone, you will want to call your vet ASAP. 

How to Treat a Sprained Leg in Dogs 

The first thing every dog owner should do if they believe their dog has injured a leg is to immobilize their dog to the best of their ability. This means, possibly: 

    • Keeping your dog crated 
    • One owner waiting with the dog while the other retrieves the car to drive them home instead of walking 
    • Carrying your dog home (only recommend for small, manageable dogs. If your dog squirms or resists, you may wind up making the injury worse). 
    • Not allowing your dog to partake in physically strenuous activities and only going outside to use the bathroom. 

You should also schedule an appointment with your vet. From there, your vet can assess the severity of the injury and determine the best plan of action. They may recommend: 

    • Surgery if a tendon or ligament is torn 
    • Pain-relieving medication and anti-inflammatories 
    • Icing the area 
    • Using a heating pad for the injured area 
    • Bed rest 
    • Massage 
    • A special diet 
    • A brace or cast 
    • Physical therapy 

Preventing Sprains and Strains for Your Dog 

As a dog owner, you can keep the most active dog healthy with a bit of precaution and a joint-healthy diet. Here’s what you need to know:  

    • Never let your dog go too hard too fast when it comes to a new physical activity. Ramp up to and ease into activities such as running or dock diving.  
    • Feed your dog a diet that supports their joint health. Healthy, natural treats like tendon chews, collagen sticks, and bully sticks are packed with glucosamine, chondroitin, and amino acids for healthy joint recovery and repair. 
    • Keep your dog active. Physical activity lubricates the joints, helps your dog maintain muscle tone to support their joints, and keeps them in good physical condition to avoid slips, trips, and falls. 
    • Intervene and walk away if another dog is playing too rough with yours. 
    • Keep your dog at a healthy weight. This reduces pressure and strain on the joints. 

Don’t Let a Leg Injury Put a Strain On Your Dog’s Happiness 

Despite having the advantage of two more legs than us, you don’t want to risk your four-legged friend injuring themselves. Four legs doesn’t mean they have any extras to spare. Keep your dog feeling their best with treats that taste great and support their joint health and keep them as active as possible. Finally, if you believe your dog has injured their leg, let them rest and recover according to your vet’s advice.  

Looking for easy ways to help your dog safely exercise? Check out our favorite activities to keep your dog at the top of their game.