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About Those Canine Athletic Injuries

Living in the Bay Area “us dog people” are fortunate to have so many off-leash play areas for our beloved companions. They can run, chase balls, catch Frisbees, search in hope of finding that elusive squirrel, and wrestle with other dogs. Nothing is more joyous than watching your pet enjoy his or her outing. Many people use their dogs as jogging partners, which keeps both in great shape. However, all these activities can occasionally result in some type of sports injury. I like to tell my clients that the more you use your dog, the more likely he or she is to have some sort of medical problem. Even our little, mostly-indoor, leash-walked dogs can become injured by flying down the stairs, jumping off the bed or couch, or chasing toys around the house.

I’ll talk about what are the most common injuries that I see in my practice. I won’t delve into the injuries that are seen more frequently in performance dogs such as flyball competitors, disc-dog participants, hunting dogs, search and rescue members, and agility competitors.

Paw injuries are by far the most common. Pad punctures and lacerations can be very painful and debilitating, but thankfully most will resolve with minimal medical intervention and time. More serious paw injuries involve tendon injuries to the carpus (or wrist). These can happen by either hyperextension or a rotational injury to the carpus when a dog lands badly or trips in a hole. These are treated either with supportive devices such as splints, or sometimes they require surgery to repair the tendons or ligament.  Occasionally we see fractures to the bones of the carpus. If there is displacement, then surgery is usually required; if not displaced, sometimes external stabilization will be an effective treatment.

Elbows do not frequently have injuries associated with most play/athletic endeavors. Shoulders can be injured from over-exercise or some type of trauma while playing. We see inflammation of the biceps tendon (biceps tendinitis) at the level of the shoulder and sometimes shoulder instabilities from weak or damaged ligaments at the shoulder joint. The biceps tendinitis can be treated with either rest or anti-inflammatory drugs or steroid injections though occasionally requires surgery to relieve the impingement that is causing pain and lameness.

The hind limbs of dogs seem to be overly represented for sports injuries. While hip dysplasia is common, this is a developmental disease that can be helped for some dogs with exercise and made worse for others. Rarely, the dog’s iliopsoas muscle can be injured from over exertion. Dogs may present with a stiffened gait, muscle pain, and difficulty getting up. Treatment can involve rest, massage, pain relievers, and passive range-of-motion exercises.

The most common hind leg injury is—as I’m sure many people have either experienced themselves, witnessed in their pet, or have seen other dogs recovering from surgery—is the stifle (knee joint). Rupture of the cranial cruciate ligament (in people, called anterior cruciate ligament, or ACL) is related to both the dog’s breed, anatomy, and injury to the joint. Commonly, owners may report the dog was running or jumping and started to hold up the leg and gingerly support weight on the affected leg. Dogs that like to jump in the air and catch a Frisbee or ball are at high risk for this to occur as landing on their hind legs creates a lot of force and torque at the stifle. The majority of dogs over 20 pounds require surgery in order to return to full function. Yes, some dogs will recover without surgery and lead a normal active life. However, most veterinary orthopedic specialists will recommend surgical repair. Post-operatively rehabilitation, laser, acupuncture, and massage all help in the recovery. A word of note about cruciate injuries: Many dogs that rupture one leg will have the same thing happen to the other leg within two years. Labradors, Rottweilers, and pit-type breed dogs are the most common dogs seen with cranial cruciate ruptures. I strongly discourage dogs from jumping in the air to fetch or catch objects as a way to prevent this from happening.

The dogs hock (our ankle) can be injured in the same way as their carpus (wrist). Dogs can also avulse their Achilles tendon, which almost always requires surgical repair.

Dogs with Frisbee-Donnie Ray Jones-CC2

I’m sure everyone would like to know how to prevent the above-mentioned injuries. In reality, I would say limit jumping in the air, include a little warm-up exercise before going full out, and realize that when dogs get older, the mind may be willing but the body is not as young and resilient as it once was. Also, having pet insurance is a good idea in case one of these injuries occurs.

Arnold Gutlaizer, D.V.M., is owner of the Broadway Pet Hospital in Oakland. He has lived and practiced in Oakland for over 25 years and still loves his work because of his clients and their pets.

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Main article photo by: Dog in splint by Teresa Alexander-Arab, dog with Frisbie by Donnie Ray Jones-both Creative Commons