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Dog Leg Sprain Versus Fracture

Dog Leg Sprain Versus Fracture

Dog leg sprain versus fracture: both of these conditions can affect a dog's legs, however one can be a less significant event, while the other requires immediate veterinary attention and extensive care, how to differentiate the two? Veterinarian Dr. Ivana Crnec provides information about leg sprains and leg strains in dogs and then provides details about leg fractures. With this information in mind, you can gain a closer insight into the differences between leg sprains and fractures in dogs and when you should seek veterinary attention.

Front Leg Limping in Dogs

Leg Sprains and Strains in Dogs

A strain is damage to muscle fibers and tendons. Strains cause lameness, pain and local swelling of the muscles. They are often accompanied by slight bleeding and bruising may be seen beneath the fur. Muscle strains may be accompanied by a mild overstretching of a ligament, which is called a sprain.

Severe overstretching causes ligament inflammation or tendinitis. Muscle or tendon tears are uncommon other than in working dogs, racing Greyhounds in particular, and occur as a result of exaggerated use.

A physical examination locates the source of lameness. X-rays may be taken to eliminate fractures, dislocations, and most but not all instances of degenerative joint disease, thereby confirming that the damage is to the soft tissue.

What should I do if my dog has a strain or sprain? Overwhelmingly, the most important part of treatment is rest. This cannot be overstated. Physical activity soon after a muscle strain or sprain can turn a minor inconvenience into a chronic and major injury.

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Immediately after injury, confine your dog to a small space. Apply ice packs (a bag of frozen peas or crushed ice wrapped in a dish towel is fine) for 20 minutes, three to four times a day. The wrapped bag can sometimes be secured to an injured region using gauze. Cold packs reduce swelling.

After the first 24 hours following the injury, switch to warm (not hot) packs three times a day for another two days. This prevents too much muscle contraction. Painkillers are not usually given unless the pain is severe. Pain can sometimes be useful – it is there to tell your dog to rest its leg. When pain control is necessary, meloxicam and carprofen are effective choices.

Fractures in Dogs 

The term fracture means broken bone. There are many different types of fractures and each type entails a different treatment approach and carries different outcome. In dogs, almost all fractures are caused by traumatic events such as dogs hit by cars and falls from heights.

To make them simpler to understand, veterinarians classify different types of fractures in dogs in two major groups:

  • Complete – the break spreads through the bone’s entire circumference thus resulting in the creation of two or more separated bone fragments.
  • Incomplete – the break goes only partway through the circumference. Simply put, incomplete fractures are more like bends and typically occur in young puppies.

Complete fractures can be categorized as:

  • Transverse – the breaking line and the bone form a right angle
  • Oblique – the break spreads diagonally across the bone thus creating two very sharp bone fragment
  • Comminuted – the break has irregular pattern and result in several differently shaped bone fragments.

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Ultimately fractures can be classified as:

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  • Open – if there is an open wound near the fracture site
  • Closed – if there is no open wound near the fracture site.

Lameness and holding the broken limb up are the most obvious signs of fractures in dogs. However, based on the fracture’s nature and location, sometimes dogs can bear some weight on the broken limb. Pain, swelling and abnormal movement can also be observed.

Since most fractures are due to trauma, the patient must be thoroughly assessed before determining the type of fracture. In most cases, fractures are not considered an emergency. First, the vet will evaluate if there are injuries to vital organs. Then, the vet will assess the fracture – usually through physical examination and X-ray.

When treating fractures, the goal is to immobilize the bone fragments and promote fusion. This can be achieved through:

  • External coaptation – includes splints and casts which are placed outside of the leg.
  • External fixation – uses special devices that are surgically attached to the broken fragments with pins.
  • Internal fixation – uses devices (nails, pins, wires, screws, plates) that are surgically implanted either inside the bone or on its surface.

What should I do if my dog has a broken bone? A dog that has broken a bone should receive immediate veterinary attention. Remove the dog from danger and control blood loss. Cover any open wounds, preferably with sterile dressing, but if that is not available use a clean towel. Try to restrain the dog, to avoid movement at the site of the fracture.

Heavy towels usually provide sufficient support for the dog while travelling to the vet in the car. If splinting is necessary, for example, to stabilize a limb bone – do not try to straighten the break in the bone. Just wrap plenty of newspaper or other material around the leg, above and below the fracture, and hold the splint in place with tape, shoelaces or similar items. Transport the dog immediately to the vet, who will assess its condition, evaluate the injury and perform X-rays to determine the severity of the damage.

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Dog Leg Sprain Versus Fracture

Unless you are a veterinary professional equipped with a powerful X-ray machine differentiating between a sprained and broken leg can be quite challenging.

To make the differentiation process simpler, first you need to understand the nature of the problem – fractures are bone issues while sprains and strains are soft tissue issues. Fractures occur when there is bone damage, sprains occur when there is ligament damage and strains occur when there is tendon damage. Ligaments are tissues that connect two different bones while tendons are tissues that connect bones and muscles. Sprains occur in joints (knees, elbows and ankles) and strains occur in the hips and thighs.

Generally speaking, if your dog is able to put some weight on the affected limb, you are dealing with a sprain or strain. On the flip side, if it cannot put any weight on the affected limb you are dealing with a fracture. However, as mentioned, based on the fracture’s nature and location, sometimes dogs can bear some weight on the broken limb.


Dogs are naturally rambunctious and energetic. These traits make them fun but also prone to accidents. Lameness, or limping, is the most common sign of muscle and bone disorders.

If you notice your beloved canine baby limping and carrying its leg up the two most common culprits are sprains/strains and fractures. Although not life-threatening both condition are quite painful and require veterinary attention. The only true way to differentiate between sprain/strain and fracture is to have your canine baby examined by a vet. The final verdict is based on a X-ray image.

About the Author 

Dr. Ivana Crnec is a graduate of the University Sv. Kliment Ohridski’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine in Bitola, Republic of Macedonia.

ivana crnec

She currently practices as a veterinarian in Bitola and is completing her postgraduate studies in the Pathology of Domestic Carnivores at the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine in Zagreb, Croatia.

Ivana’s research has been published in international journals, and she regularly attends international veterinary conferences.

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