Features March 2007 Issue

Home Treatments for Injured Dogs

Home treatments for sports injuries to get your dog back on his paws.

A muscle strain here, a pulled ligament there, a sprain, a bruise pretty soon we’re talking about serious problems. Canine sports injuries are increasingly common, but there is much you can do to catch them early, treat them correctly, and reduce the risk of your dog getting badly hurt, needing surgery, or having to retire from competition.

Every dog is a candidate for injury, but those at special risk include overweight dogs, weekend athletes, couch potatoes, dogs with arthritis, and dogs engaged in search and rescue, flyball, agility, freestyle, disc dog (Frisbee), field work, dock diving, obedience, weight pulling, dog sledding, and other sports.

Canine injuries aren’t always obvious. In fact, as Morgan Spector notes in Clicker Training for Obedience, dogs are very good at hiding injuries, a behavior that stems from an atavistic survival mechanism. As a result, we seldom realize that dogs are in pain until the damage is serious.

To identify injuries early, train yourself to be observant. Get in the habit of watching your dog stretch, turn, walk, run, and jump. Ask for help from visually oriented friends and trainers. When alignment is perfect and muscles are toned, a dog’s motions are balanced and graceful. Serious limps are obvious, but if you pay attention, you’ll notice more subtle symptoms, like tightness, tenderness, restricted movement, and even the slightest change of gait.

Working dogs and dogs who compete in athletic sports such as agility, flyball, sledding, disc, etc., benefit from increased care and scrutiny. any irregularity of their gait or decrease in their enthusiasm should be investigated.

Range-of-motion exercises, such as using a treat or toy to lure your dog into a tight turn to the right or left or raising and lowering her head, can call attention to minor problems. Daily massage and gentle touch offer clues, too. Does your dog turn away when you stroke or press her hindquarters? Does any area feel unusually warm? Hard or stiff? Tender or swollen? Not the way it felt yesterday? Touch is one of the fastest ways to discover inflammation, muscle strains, and other discomforts.

When you notice changes, keep track of them in a calendar or notebook. If needed, an accurate history of symptoms and treatments will help veterinarians and other therapists understand your dog’s injury.

Obviously, any serious problem should be attended to at once. Whenever you’re in doubt, go straight to your veterinarian, rehabilitation clinic, veterinary chiropractor, canine massage therapist, or other specialist.

First aid

The most important first-aid treatment for any injury is rest, and the simplest additional therapies are heat and cold. Which should you use when?

An acute injury is one that flares up quickly, within 24 to 48 hours of the incident that caused it. Acute injuries usually result from a sprain, fall, collision, or other impact, and they produce sharp sudden pain, tenderness, redness, swelling, skin that feels hot to the touch, and inflammation.

Cold is recommended for acute injuries because it reduces swelling and pain. Injured dogs instinctively seek puddles, ponds, streams, and winter snow banks in which to stand or lie.

A bag of frozen peas makes a convenient cold pack because it can be placed just about anywhere on the body, conforming to fit. Cold therapy products for pets, such as On-Ice bags and covers, are available from pet supply stores. Medical supply companies sell a variety of cold packs for sports injuries. The ones that contain a gel that stays malleable even when frozen are especially helpful for molding around a dog’s musculature.

Because cold restricts circulation and ice left in place for too long can cause complications, wrap any uncovered ice pack in a towel before applying it, remove the ice pack after 10 or 15 minutes, and wait at least two hours before reapplying. Never apply cold treatments just before exercise, workouts, training sessions, or competition.

Heat is recommended for chronic injuries, which are slow to develop, get better and worse, and cause dull pain or soreness. The usual causes of chronic injuries are overuse, arthritis, and acute injuries that were never properly treated. Heat therapy helps sore, stiff muscles, arthritic joints, and old injuries feel better because it stimulates circulation, helps release tight muscles, and alleviates spasms.

Heat is not recommended for acute injuries, areas of swelling or inflammation, or for use immediately after exercise.

To apply moist heat safely and effectively, place a damp towel in a hot clothes dryer or microwave for a minute or two. Be sure the towel feels hot but not uncomfortably so (test it on your inner wrist and let it cool if necessary), then fold it to fit the affected area. An extra towel on top helps retain warmth. Apply heat to the injury for 10 to 15 minutes, then wait another 15 minutes or longer before reapplying.

Electric heating pads are not usually recommended for canine use. Microwavable pet heating pads like the Snuggle Safe and the ThermoWave release safe, gentle heat for hours.


Massage is one of the easiest techniques for handlers to learn, and most dogs enjoy being stroked, kneaded, stretched, and rubbed. (See “Whole Dog Journal Reviews Tapes that Teach Massage,” November 2002, and “What to Think About When Petting Your Dog,” July 2004.) Massage, myotherapy (trigger point work), and other hands-on techniques not only treat injuries, they help prevent them by improving circulation, repairing damaged tissue, soothing the patient, and restoring range of motion. Canine massage therapists and canine myotherapists are health care professionals with special training in the treatment of sports injuries.

Keep in mind that athletes are not the only canines who can suffer sports injuries; dogs can also strain muscles and tendons while engaging in fast play at the dog park, overdoing it at games of fetch, or just jumping into or out of your car!

Chiropractic adjustments correct the alignment of joints and vertebrae in order to relieve pain, reduce muscle spasms, improve coordination, and enhance overall health. Veterinary chiropractors often specialize in sports injuries.

Acupuncture speeds healing by increasing circulation to affected areas, relieving pain, improving musculoskeletal problems such as arthritis, disc disorders, stiffness, or lameness, and balancing the body’s energy. Its close relative acupressure (see “Athletic Dogs and Acupressure Techniques,” by Amy Snow and Nancy Zidonis), which involves holding acupuncture points rather than inserting needles, can be used for emergency first aid, rehabilitation, and injury-preventing conditioning.

Tellington TTouch (pronounced tee-touch) is beneficial to canine athletes because its circular touches actually change the way dogs process information. These simple motions can help your dog switch mental gears and focus on the present moment, release tension, and feel confident instead of fearful. The most widely known TTouches for dogs are the ear slide (holding the dog’s ear between thumb and bent forefinger, slide fingers from base to tip and repeat until the entire ear has been stroked) and ear circles (make small circles all over the ear). Ear TTouches have a calming effect in emergencies or whenever the dog is under stress, distracted, or in pain. TTouch exercises like maze-walking (stepping over and around low obstacles) while wearing an elastic bandage body wrap help dogs understand where their hind ends are. This proprioceptic (neuro-muscular) awareness improves coordination and reduces injury risk. See “A Calming TTouch to Noise-Phobic Dogs” (May 1999) and “TTouch Practitioners Explain Canine 'Body Wrapping'" (December 2002).

With the help of books like Physical Therapy for the Canine Athlete by Suzanne Clothier and veterinary chiropractor Sue Ann Lesser, DVM, you can guide your dog through therapeutic stretches, physical adjustments, and exercises that correct a variety of problems.

As interest in canine rehabilitation grows, more clinics and independent therapists will offer noninvasive, drug-free therapies. With the help of workshops, books, videos, magazines, online courses, and DVDs, the basics of many bodywork techniques can be learned by anyone for use at home, in training, and whenever a dog might benefit.

Next: Don’t leave home without it!

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