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Ask the Vet: How Can You Tell if a Dog Pulled a Muscle?

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If you are wondering how to tell if a dog pulled a muscle, most likely you suspect something's wrong with your dog. Spared from the gift of voice, dogs can't communicate to us what is affected them, it is therefore up to us dog owners figuring things out. To complicate things, dogs can often be quite stoic beings, masking signs of pain. This leaves us with little information other than perhaps some limping. Veterinarian Dr. Ivana Crnec discusses pulled muscles in dogs, what signs to look for and how veterinarians diagnose and treat torn muscles in dogs. 

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Kinds of Muscles in Dogs 

Dogs, and all mammals in general, have three kinds of muscle. Cardiac muscle, smooth muscle and striated muscles. Let's take a closer into all three of these.

Cardiac muscle, as the name implies, is specific to the heart, making up most of its tissue. Smooth muscle, on the other hand, is responsible for the movement of the internal organs, and is therefore not under conscious control (your dog can't voluntarily move these). Skeletal (striated) muscles instead are those attached to the dog's skeleton, and are used for active movement. Skeletal muscle makes up the majority of the muscle bulk. A dog has over 500 skeletal muscles that can be controlled consciously to produce movement.

A dog's skeletal muscles are kept toned by a steady flow of nerve impulses. If a muscle loses its nerve supply, it shrinks. Muscles also require a constant supply of blood, and if this supply is impaired, stiffness may result. Their tissues are highly capable of self-repair. If one part of a muscle is damaged, the remaining parts compensate by growing larger and stronger.

Pulled Muscles in Dogs 

Muscles are more often injured than diseased. Strains or pulling, bruising and tearing, cramps and natural wear and tear are overwhelmingly the most common muscle issues in dogs. Muscle pulls in dogs are quite common.

All it takes for them to occur are a mistimed a jump, a simple slipping over or just pushing too hard while running in the park. Dogs can pull a muscle located anywhere on the body, but in most cases, the muscles of the extremities are the most affected.

There are several risk factors contributing to pulled muscles in dogs: young dogs, canine athletes and working dogs and obese dogs. Let's take a closer look into these risk factors.

Young dogs are often impacted because they are more active than older dogs and therefore more likely to sustain muscle injury. Canine athletes and working dogs are vulnerable because of the exaggerated muscle use in these dogs often result in injuries. Finally, obesity is a big risk factor because more the extra weight puts more strain on the dog's muscles.

How Can You Tell if a Dog Pulled a Muscle?

There are several signs and symptoms of a pulled muscle in dogs. Any of these signs warrant a trip to the vet for assessment. In general, a dog with a pulled muscle will exhibit the following signs and symptoms:

  • Whimpering
  • Weakness
  • Paw raising
  • Limping
  • Lameness
  • Pain
  • Reluctance to exercise

Your vet has been specifically trained to tell whether your dog has pulled a muscle. A regular physical examination will reveal the location of the issue. X-rays may be taken to rule out fractures thereby confirming that the damage is to the soft tissue.

Treating a Pulled Muscle in Dogs

Overwhelmingly, the most important part of the treatment is rest. The importance of rest cannot be overstated. Physical activity soon after a muscle pulling can transform a minor inconvenience into a chronic and major injury.

Immediately after the injury, confine your dog to a small, yet comfortable space. The next step is to apply ice packs. A bag of frozen peas or crushed ice wrapped in a clean towel will also do the trick. The ice packs should be applied 3 to 4 timer per day and each session should last around 20 minutes. This will help relieve the pain caused by the muscle pulling.

After the first 24 hours following the pulling of the muscle, you should switch to warm packs. The warm packs should be used 3 times a day for another two days. This will prevent unnecessary muscle contractions.

Painkillers should be considered only in severe cases. If pain control is prescribed, the most effective choices are non-steroid anti-inflammatories such as meloxicam and carprofen. In milder cases, painkillers should be avoided. In fact, the pain is useful because it reminds the dog to rest the pulled muscle.

Muscle Tears and Bruises in Dogs 

Bruising and tearing of a dog's muscle fibers is difficult to detect, especially in dogs that have full coats of hair. These forms of damage may occur not only after injuries from falling, traffic accidents, or abuse, but also after excessive work or exercise. Racing Greyhounds are particularly prone to muscle bruising and tears.

The signs vary with the degree of injury. Minor injuries produce local sensitivity and tenderness while major damage from muscle tears causes more swelling and greater pain.

Parting the hair may reveal reddening caused by bruised muscle below. Blood tests to measure muscle enzyme levels can indicate the degree of damage. X-rays may be performed to confirm that the damage is restricted to the muscle tissue and rather than affecting the bones and joints.

Once again, the most important element of treatment is rest, for at least three weeks when damage is severe, during which time full healing usually takes place.

Muscle Cramps in Dogs 

Cramps occur when muscle filaments, the components of muscle fibers, remain permanently contracted. They occur most frequently in canine athletes as a result of muscle overuse and cause painful muscle spasms.

Most muscle cramps in dogs last only a few minutes and can be relieved by massaging or stretching the muscles involved. If a dog appears to be in pain for longer than about an hour, there may be a more serious underlying problem.

Natural Wear and Tear 

Did you know? Over time, a dog’s muscles naturally shrink and gradually lose their power. This process of natural wear and tear occurs more slowly if a dog is kept fit and healthy by frequent gentle exercise as it grows old.

In some cases, however, metabolic disorders elsewhere in the body may affect the dog’s muscle mass. Certain metabolic disorders reduce the amount of nutrients available to the muscles, or produce toxins that damage the muscle fibers. If your dog is losing muscle mass for no apparent reason, there may be a medical problem elsewhere in the body and you should seek veterinary advice.

Vet's Advice to Prevent Muscle Problems in Dogs 

Exercise is of prime importance in maintaining the skeleton and the muscles. Most dogs need at least one, preferably two, sessions of daily exercise that include trotting and galloping. This activity not only promotes muscle strength, but also helps increase the density and strength of bones.

Regular, gentle exercise is particularly important for dogs with disorders affecting the joints and the muscles. As a dog ages, its endurance diminishes, but its need for regular exercise does not. Do not over-exercise a mature dog. Walking and trotting is better than galloping.

After a dog has been incapacitated by illness or injury, reintroduce exercise gradually – say, over a three-week period. For all dogs, exercise should include mental as well as physical stimulation.

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

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