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Help, My Dog Pulled a Muscle (Muscle Tear)

Dog Muscle Tear

If you suspect your dog pulled a muscle, you may be wondering if there is anything you can do at home to help your canine companion. Also known as a muscle tear, a pulled muscle is categorized as a soft tissue injury and therefore requires some rest and tender loving care to get better. As always, it is best to see your vet if you suspect your dog pulled a muscle. At times, what seems like a pulled muscle in dogs can actually be something else such as a dislocated hip, luxated patella, torn ACL or even bone cancer. Therefore you may want to see your vet to play it safe, especially if your dog is not getting any better in a couple of days.

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Muscle Injuries in Dogs 

Just like us, our dogs are prone to a variety of soft-tissue injuries such as muscle trauma, ligament problems, and tendon tears. To better understand what happens when a dog pulls a muscle, it helps to gain a better appreciation of how the dog's muscle-tendon unit works.

A dog's muscles do not contract in isolation, rather, movement is an orchestrated event of tendons and muscles interacting with each other. Any time your dog moves, the muscles contract while the tendon "recoils" (sort of like an elastic band) lengthening before shortening.

Problems with the dog's muscle-tendon unit triggers a dog's inability to properly flex or extend the affected joint. Dogs may therefore develop pain, swelling and lameness. These muscle strains often result from overuse of certain muscles when they're pushed past their endurance point. In acute injuries symptoms of a muscle strain flare up pretty quickly, usually within 24 to 48 hours of the incident.

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Did you know? There is often confusion among the terms "strain" and "sprain." A strain occurs when there is excessive stretch and there is damage to the muscle fibers or the muscle or tendon tears. A sprain injury occurs when there is stretching or tearing of a ligament— the fibrous tissue connecting two bones. A common area of ligament tear is the dog's canine cruciate ligament.


Grading Dog Muscle Strains

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Labs are prone to laryngeal paralysis

Not all dog muscle strains are created equal: there are several grades of muscle strains in dogs.

A grade one muscle strain is a mild strain where just a few muscle fibers have been damaged. Generally, with this type of injury, you should expect the dog to start getting better anywhere between two to three weeks.

A grade two muscle strain entails more extensive damage to the dog's muscle fibers, but there is no muscle tear. For this type of injury, dogs generally get better withing three to six weeks.

A grade three muscle strain is a severe injury where there is a complete tear of the muscle. Typically, this type of injury requires surgical intervention to repair the torn muscle. About 12 weeks of healing time may be needed. If the tendon manages to separate from the bone (avulsion) it may need to be re-attached with screws, bone staples or bone tunnels.

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Types of Muscle Strains in Dogs

Dogs are prone to a variety of sprains and strains. Saying "my dog pulled a muscle" is pretty vague as dogs have a lot of different muscles! Virtually any skeletal muscle in your dog's body may suffer a strain but some muscles are more prone to suffering from a strain than others.

In the hind legs, muscles more likely to tear include the iliopsoas muscle, (hip joint area) the gracilis muscle  (inner surface of thigh) and the semitendinosus muscle (back of the thigh).

In the front legs, dogs may develop contracture of infraspinatus muscle ( nearby shoulder area, mostly seen in very active dogs).

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In the back, the dog can injure his Latissimus Dorsi muscle (towards shoulder/neck area) or Longissimus Dorsi (towards the back).

And of course, there are many other muscles that dogs can develop strains from!

Treating a Dog's Pulled Muscle

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When a dog pulls a muscle, the muscle is weaker for some time and at risk for further injury. Luckily, it often takes a dogs a few days of strict rest (or weeks depending on the severity of the injury) for the muscle to progress towards tissue healing. This means no running, jumping and leashed walks to potty.

Generally, if the dog has just a simple sprain, there should be some improvement in 48 to 72 hours. An ice pack applied to the pulled muscle area may also help, suggests veterinarian Dr. Christian K. 

It's important to  refrain from the temptation of giving over-the-counter anti-inflammatory drugs such as Ibprofen, Tylenol, Motrin, Aleve or Advil as these can be potentially toxic and even deadly in dogs. While aspirin is a safer over-the-counter drug for pain and inflammation in dogs, it can cause significant side effects and even overdoses in small dogs. Consult with your vet.

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And what about wrapping the leg? One thing to consider is that it is often difficult to pinpoint which joint or muscle group is causing problems. You may end up wrapping the wrong part of the leg and, of course, you can't just wrap the whole leg, explains veterinarian Dr. Dan.

On top of that, since dogs are highly mobile, wraps may cause more pain and irritation, something that is not really needed.


At the Vet's Office

If you suspect your dog has pulled a muscle, see your vet, especially if there is significant pain and it's not getting any better.

Once you take your dog to see the vet, the vet will palpate your dog's muscles and joints, extending the legs and pressing on certain areas. Your vet may ask to watch your dog walk and move around to detect any abnormalities in your dog's gait.

X-rays may be taken to rule out certain orthopedic problems affecting the bones (arthritis, bone cancer) An MRI or ultrasound may also be done to check for any soft tissue damage that cannot be viewed from the outside.

Your vet may prescribe some anti-inflammatory medications such as Rimadyl, Deramaxx or Meloxicam. An opiod-like drug known as Tramadol may be used as well to relieve dog pain.

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  • DVM360: Diagnosing and treating strains and sprains (Proceedings)
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