Muscle spasms in a dog's leg can be an annoying experience for the affected dog to endure. Dogs do not understand what is happening to them and they may react by tuning their head, getting up repeatedly or being unable to sleep and relax. If your dog has developed muscles spasms affecting the leg, it's important to see the vet so to get to the root of the problem so that it can be treated accordingly. The underlying cause for muscle spasms in a dog's leg may not always be easy to pinpoint and may warrant careful investigation by the vet.
Muscle Spasms in Dogs
Also known as muscle cramps or fasciculations, muscle spasms in dogs are involuntary muscle movements which take place when a muscle contracts and is unable to relax.
Muscles spasms can affect any muscle of the dog's body, (although the skeletal muscles are the mostly commonly affected), and may involve just a part of a muscle or several muscles at once.
Typically, muscle spasms last only a split second and may occur repeatedly with a certain frequency. They may be fairly rapid, or they may show up as rather slow vibrations.
Muscle spasms in dogs shouldn't be confused for the twitching seen during seizures (epilepsy). During seizures, the twitching would be very episodic with the shaking affecting the whole body (grand mal seizure) or just one body part (petit mal seizure) and lasting a minute or so. Afterward, the dog goes back to a state of normalcy.
Muscle spasms can produce various sensations ranging from the sensation of a mild twitch to severe pain. Dogs may tense up when they feel pain and this muscle stiffness further contributes to the pain triggering a vicious circle.
Orthopedic Causes of Muscle Spasms in a Dog's Leg
Muscles spasms in a dog's leg may affect a dog's front leg or rear leg and can be caused by a variety of underlying causes. The causes may be often directly related to the affected leg, but sometimes there may be other areas affected.
When it comes to orthopedic issues, muscle spasms affecting a dog's front leg may be caused by a soft tissue problem (for example a strain o sprain), a hairline fracture, arthritis etc. Muscles spasms in a dog's back leg can be caused by iliopsoas strains, other soft tissue problems, torn ligaments, luxating knee caps, hip problems, a hairline fracture, arthritis, etc.
Spinal Causes of Muscle Spasms in a Dog's Leg
In some cases, muscle spasms in a dog's leg may be due to an issue affecting the dog's spine. A dog's spine is formed by several vertebra that are separated from each other by a fluid-filled intervertebral disc which acts as a shock absorber.
A dog's spine is divided into three distinct sections: the cervical, thoracic, and lumbar area. The cervical area of the spine helps supports a dog’s neck and shoulders, the thoracic section supports the chest and abdomen, while the lumbar area supports a dog’s lower back and rear legs.
While a healthy spine helps dogs move about, problems start when a disc in the spine ruptures or herniates, causing leakage of its fluid and significant pain and inflammation. Affected dogs will often manifest signs of pain through vocalizations, lethargy and a general reluctance to move.
Muscle spasms may be seen in dog's neck or back area, but also in the legs considering that nerves travel from the spine all the way down to the extremities. Dogs may also limp and even display signs of partial or complete paralysis.
Other Possible Causes to Consider
Muscles spasms may also be seen in several others circumstances. For instance, muscle spasms may appear in dogs exposed to toxins, although in this case, the tremoring would be more widespread rather than affecting only one leg, explains veterinarian Dr. Stacy. Sometimes, muscle tremors in dogs may be a side effect of a medication, whether the ingestion was accidental (dog finds a dropped pill on the floor) or by purposeful administration by the owner.
Sometimes, neurological disorders (brain tumors, white shaker syndrome affecting small white dogs) may be at play. In such a case, the vet may conduct a basic neurological exam by flipping a hind paw upside down and evaluating whether the dog flips it back to normal. Referral to a neurologist may be needed for challenging cases.
Metabolic disorders may also be at play, although they would more likely cause widespread muscle spasms rather than limited to a leg. Possible metabolic disorders known for causing muscle spasms in dogs include electrolyte imbalances, low blood sugar, diabetes, low calcium levels, liver, kidney or heart problems.
Sometimes, an exact cause for leg tremors in dogs cannot be found. In such a case, it is referred to as an idiopathic (unknown cause) tremor as it is often described in people. Dogs in their older years, may too develop what are referred to as senile tremors.
At the Vet's Office
The vet will collect the dog's medical information including detailed information pertaining observed symptoms, when the symptoms first started, any potential history of trauma and what medications the dog is on. Recording the muscle spasms on tape at home may be helpful to show the vet considering that there are always chances that the spasms may subside while at the vet.
The vet will perform a physical exam paying particular attention to the dog's legs and spine and may suggest blood work and urinalysis to rule out some metabolic disorders. While x-rays can help determine presence of fractures, arthritis and other degenerative changes, in the case of a disc problem diagnosis is only obtained through an MRI or CT scan. Complicated cases suggestive of neurological issues may be referred to a veterinary neurologist.
Treatment for muscles spasms in a dog's leg is based on the underlying cause. Orthopedic issues may often benefit from NSAIDS such as Rimadyl or Metacam. For disc problems, the muscle relaxant methocarbamol can be prescribed to dogs with intervertebral disk disease along with NSAIDs, gabapentin and tramadol.
"Muscle relaxants (e.g., diazepam or methocarbamol) are useful in animals with intervertebral disk disease or neoplasia causing nerve root irritation, as much of the pain in these conditions is associated with muscle spasm."~Dr.Christopher L. Mariani