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5 Common Musculoskeletal Conditions in Canine Athletes

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Overview

Canine athletes are more common than you might think. It's not just hunting dogs and show dogs that are canine athletes, but also pups working with the police or rescue services. You could even consider your Collie that spends all day herding anything that moves a canine athlete.

Musculoskeletal conditions are common among canine athletes — their work and activity requirements put strain on their bones, joints, and muscles. While many musculoskeletal conditions are congenital or hereditary, canine athletes often suffer from disorders resulting from wear and tear. 

So, if your fur-baby loves running agility courses, what potential injuries and disorders should you watch out for? Here are 5 common musculoskeletal conditions in canine athletes.


vet wrapping blue gauze around the leg of a long-haired dog

Sprains

Sprains are very common among canine athletes. Just like humans, dogs can overstretch ligaments that connect bones, causing a sprain. A sprain is different from muscle strain, which involves pulling a muscle or tendon. Sprains are usually minor injuries, but they occasionally require x-rays, anti-inflammatory medication, and surgery. 

Symptoms

Causes

Sprains are usually caused by a dog overextending when jumping on or off something. Sprains can also be caused by being overweight

Diagnosis 

Depending on the severity of the injury, your vet may prescribe a course of anti-inflammatory medication to see if the condition improves on its own. X-rays and MRIs may be required to confirm the extent of the injury. Your vet may also order blood tests to rule out infections like Lyme disease

Treatment

If symptoms are mild, your dog may be experiencing a mild strain or sprain, in which case it may clear up in a few days. However, if your dog is displaying acute lameness coupled with other symptoms, you should contact a vet. 

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are the most common way of treating a sprain. Your dog may require surgery, depending on where the injury is and whether it's reoccurring.

Average cost of treatment: $600


yellow dog with leg cast lying on blue mat - common musculoskeletal conditions in canine athletes

Broken legs

Another common but more severe musculoskeletal condition in canine athletes is bone fractures. A dog's bones are surprisingly fragile, and breaks can occur from repeated high-impact activity or jumping from a great height. 

Broken legs are the most common bone breaks and fractures among dogs. According to a study in The Canadian Veterinary Journal, 45% of long bone fractures in dogs occur in the femur, or upper thigh bone. 

Symptoms

  • Severe lameness
  • Swelling
  • Visible discomfort
  • Whimpering
  • Bruising
  • Loss of appetite

Causes

Broken legs in dogs are usually caused by high-impact activity or trauma. It's also possible for underlying diseases, like bone cancer, and poor diet to cause broken bones.  

Diagnosis 

Pet parents should take care when transporting a dog with a suspected broken bone, as rushing could cause more damage. To decipher the extent of a break or fracture, your vet will order x-rays. They may check your dog's vitals and administer fluids or pain medication. They may also do blood tests to confirm the injury isn't related to an underlying health concern. 

Treatment

Treatment depends on the severity of the break or fracture. If it's minor, your dog may not require surgery. Your vet may give your dog an external splint or a cast. You'll need to attend follow-up appointments to assess your dog's recovery and ensure the cast is intact.

Your vet may recommend surgery in more severe cases. During the procedure, the surgeon will fit your dog with an external metal fixation device with internal pins. Occasionally, vets recommend amputation of the limb as the best option. 

Average cost of treatment: $2,000


brown and white dog jumping over pole - canine athlete competition

Cranial cruciate ligament damage

The cranial cruciate ligament (CrCL) is the band of fibrous tissue that attaches the tibia to the femur. It's similar to the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in humans. Tearing this tissue around the knee can be extremely painful and expensive to treat. It's one of the biggest causes of hind-limb lameness in dogs. 

Symptoms

  • Hind limb lameness
  • Whimpering
  • Visible discomfort
  • Limping
  • Low activity
  • Loss of appetite

Causes

The most common cause of CrCL damage is repeated stress to the knee or overexertion. Obesity can also be a contributing factor to CrCL damage. CrCL damage is more common in larger breeds, such as Rottweilers and Labradors.

Diagnosis 

A cranial drawer test is the easiest way to tell if a dog has cruciate ligament damage. However, this test may not work on anxious or tense canines. This test involves manipulating the tibia while holding the femur. There's a tear or damage if the tibia slides out of place like a drawer. Some vets also use the tibia compression test to diagnose this condition. 

Your vet will order x-rays to check the ligament's general condition and for signs of arthritis. Arthroscopic surgery may be necessary to diagnose the issue properly. 

Treatment

If the damage is minor, your vet may recommend an 8-week trial period to see if your dog's condition improves. During this period, your vet may give your dog pain medication. They may also recommend exercise restrictions, physical therapy, and massage.

That said, surgery is usually the only way to fix cruciate ligament damage. Surgery is generally beneficial, with a 50% success rate. If the tear is severe enough, surgery is required, as otherwise the knee won't ever recover.

Average cost of treatment: $3,000


brown dog training with person - common musculoskeletal diseases in canine athletes

Limber tail syndrome

Limber tail, or acute caudal myopathy, is prevalent among hunting breeds. It's characterized as a strain of the muscle groups in the tail. Limber tail syndrome is generally mild but sometimes requires veterinary care. 

Symptoms

  • A limp tail
  • Reluctance to sit
  • Reluctance to defecate
  • Whimpering 
  • Swelling at the base of the tail

Causes

Exercise is the primary cause of limber tail syndrome. Dogs who spend long periods swimming or doing other forms of vigorous exercise are prone to limber tail syndrome. Hunting breeds, such as Basset Hounds and Beagles, are more likely to develop limber tail syndrome. Spending long periods in a crate can also cause limber tail syndrome. 

Diagnosis 

While limber tail syndrome is usually mild and will heal without treatment, it can be very painful. You should take your dog to the vet to ensure it's not severe or symptomatic of an underlying condition. 

Your vet will give your dog a general exam and check their anal glands for signs of infection. Your vet will likely order an x-ray of your dog's lower half to check the extent of the injury and ensure your dog doesn't have osteoarthritis or a broken tail. 

Treatment

As mentioned, limber tail syndrome will often resolve itself. Your vet may prescribe anti-inflammatory and pain medication. Limiting your dog's activity will help with healing. Applying a warm compress to the base of the tail can reduce the swelling and ease discomfort. 

Average cost of treatment: $500


dog lying on exam table with two veterinarians wearing blue scrubs in the background

Osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis, or degenerative joint disease (DJD), is a chronic joint disorder. It's the most common cause of arthritis in dogs, affecting 20% of dogs over the age of one. Osteoarthritis is characterized by a worsening inflammation of the joint and deterioration of the cartilage. 

Symptoms

  • Limping
  • Lameness
  • Stiffness when standing up
  • Abnormal gait
  • Whining
  • Visible discomfort
  • Difficulty getting up
  • Loss of appetite
  • Low activity

Causes

The most common cause of osteoarthritis is repeated movement and activity. As it's a degenerative condition, it's most common in older dogs. Congenital conditions, like hip dysplasia and elbow dysplasia, can trigger osteoarthritis. Past trauma and injury can also contribute to osteoarthritis. 

Diagnosis 

To diagnose osteoarthritis, your vet will look closely at your dog's medical history and ask you questions about their lifestyle and recent activity. They will also check your dog's joints for fluid accumulation (effusion).

An x-ray is necessary to diagnose osteoarthritis. Your vet may also order an MRI or CT scan to show the extent of the disorder in more detail. 

Treatment

Osteoarthritis is a progressive disease with no cure. That said, there are plenty of ways to slow down the degeneration. Medical treatments include NSAIDs, surgery, and glucocorticoid injections. 

Additionally, lifestyle changes can ease your dog's pain and slow the condition. Changing their diet and administering supplements (according to your vet's instructions) can help. Physical therapy and a change in exercise routine can also help stem osteoarthritis' progress.

Average cost of treatment: $5,000


Musculoskeletal conditions can be expensive to treat. If you have a canine athlete, start searching for pet insurance today. Wag!’s pet insurance comparison tool lets you compare plans from leading companies like PetPlan and Embrace. Find the “pawfect” plan for your pet in just a few clicks!




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