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Identifying shoulder injuries in dogs at times can be challenging considering that the dog's shoulder is part of the dog's forelimb and it can be tricky finding the exact origin of the dog's pain. 

Shoulder injuries in dogs cause similar symptoms of many other disorders of the leg and therefore may not be readily recognized. 

Affected dogs may show vague symptoms such as painful limping after exercise. 

Even upon seeing the vet, affected dogs may not show signs of pain upon palpation and therefore it may be challenging to localize the issue and blame the shoulder. 

X-rays too may not always be very insightful.

A Lesson in Dog Anatomy

In dogs, the shoulder is nearly hidden from view, especially in well-muscled dogs like Rottweilers or dogs with a thick coat. 

You may feel your dog's shoulders if you place your hands on the front of either sides of the chest. In dogs with short hair, you can palpate the scapula as it feels like a flat bone.

A dog's shoulders are different anatomically compared to human shoulders as they are not supported by anything other than muscle and ligaments. 

Dogs, unlike humans, do not have a collar bone. Absence of the collar bone allows dogs to have greater stride length for running and jumping.

The dog's shoulder joint is a “ball-and-socket” joint which is composed of the scapula and the humerus. Dogs shoulders comprise 25 muscles, with the supraspinatous and infraspinatous muscles playing an important role in allowing the dog to flex and extend the shoulder while preventing dislocation.

Dogs may injure their shoulders in various ways. Puppies or dogs may run into something and strongly hit their shoulder joint. 

In other cases, the shoulder may sustain repeated stress as it may happen with dogs engaged in vigorous sports such as agility. Shoulder injuries are also common in dogs who are prematurely engaged in athletic activities but have not obtained a level of good conditioning.

Fortunately, many shoulder injuries turn out being simple strains or sprains that are temporary in nature. 

In these cases, rest and pain medications such as an anti-inflammatory medication such as Rimadyl or Deramaxx for 2 to 3 days, or 3 to 5 days does the trick. 

If you suspect your dog has injured his shoulder, consult with your vet for proper diagnosis and treatment and guidance on providing safe pain medications for your dog.

Did you know? In retrievers and gundogs who often work over uneven terrain and with poor visibility, shoulder injuries are the most common type of injury sustained. Shoulder injuries are also often found in agility dogs.

Types of Shoulder Injuries in Dogs 

Dogs may suffer from various types of shoulder injuries, and as mentioned, readily recognizing the type of injury sustained may be challenging at times. 

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Soft-tissue injuries of the shoulder area are not uncommon and these may affect the dog's tendons, ligaments and cartilage.

One area of potential shoulder injuries in dogs is the supraspinatus tendon where dogs may develop rotator cuff tears, tendonitis or tendinosis due to overuse.

 Dogs with supraspinatus tendonitis may develop unilateral limping that worsens with exercise. Some dogs may exhibit pain when the tendon is palpated or when the shoulder is flexed. 

Another shoulder injury in dogs is bicipital tenosynovitis affecting the dog's biceps brachii muscle and the associated tendon that crosses over the shoulder joint.

 This is a type of chronic injury that develops gradually as the tendon tends to tear slowly overtime. Large breed dogs are predisposed.

Medial shoulder instability is a finding often occurring in dogs used in sports such as agility. This sport causes lots of stress to a dog's muscles, ligaments and tendons. 

In agility, repetitive jumps with sharp turns and weave poles can put the dog's shoulder at stress. Slips or falls can cause shoulder injuries in dogs too. 

Dogs may develop cumulative microtrauma causing a decrease in performance. Affected dogs may be reluctant to perform tight turns and may exhibit front-leg limping.

Other types of shoulder injuries in dogs include infraspinatus contracture of the infraspinatus muscle and bursal ossification (ossification of the infraspinatus tendon-bursa), teres minor myopathy (common in dogs participating in flyball sports ), medial glenohumeral ligament instability, fractures or pathological fractures from a bone tumor, dislocation (both these would cause significant pain and the dog may not be able to bear weight on the leg) and osteoarthritis.

In young dogs, between the ages of 4 and 10 months, what look like shoulder injuries may turn out being caused by a condition known as osteochondritis dissecans (OCD) of the shoulder.

At the Vet's Office 

lump on a dog's rib cage

Your vet will inquire about your dog's history. Generally, diagnosis of shoulder injuries in dogs is much more direct if the owner reports history of an accident.

The dog owner may have witnessed the dog falling after jumping, landing badly, or the dog may have recently engaged in demanding sports or activities involving quick turns. Owners of agility dogs may notice their dogs knocking down bars with their front legs when jumping and having issues with 2 on 2 off contacts.

Your vet will then perform a physical examination with detailed attention to the affected leg. He or she will palpate the leg, extend it and move it to check for stiffness and signs of pain. Some dogs may manifest pain when the vet palpates the bicep tendon or extends the elbow and flexes the shoulder.In some conditions, dogs may develop atrophied muscles.

The vet may then watch the dog walk, carefully observing the gait. Dogs with shoulder problems often have a shortened stride or a swinging gait and a subtle to severe lameness that tends to get worse with exercise.

Diagnostics tests may includes x-rays (although not always insightful), ultrasound or MRI (magnetic resonance imaging). The cost of an MRI in dogs may range roughly between $1500-$2000. Shoulder arthroscopy is the most helpful diagnostic tool for diagnosing bicipital tenosynovitis in dogs.

Treatment for shoulder injuries is dogs varies based on the underlying condition diagnosed. Acute cases of bicipital tenosynovitis can be addressed with restricted activity, range of motion exercises, use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), hyaluronic acid or cortisone shots, laser therapy, cryotherapy and acupuncture. 

Chronic cases may benefit from massage, heat therapy, laser therapy, ultrasound therapy and acupuncture. Cases that are not responsive to medical management may require surgical intervention. 

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