Home Treatments for Injured Dogs
For the sport dog.
[Updated February 4, 2016]
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
- dogs engaged in search and rescue
- dogs who compete in flyball, agility, freestyle, disc dog (Frisbee), field work, dock diving, obedience, weight pulling, dog sledding, and other sports
They 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.
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.
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 “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.
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,” March 2007), 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.
Herbal remedies for all dogs.
Arnica (Arnica montana) is a small Alpine herb whose yellow flowers pack a powerful healing punch. If applied within a minute or two of a trauma injury, arnica tincture (an alcohol extract of the flowers) can stop pain and prevent bruising. Applied to older injuries, arnica stimulates capillary circulation and speeds healing.
But arnica is a controversial herb. Because it is a powerful heart stimulant, most American herbalists have been taught that arnica should never be taken internally or used on broken skin.
This cautious approach, say some experts, deprives users of arnica’s most important potential.
According to Ed Smith, a highly regarded herbal researcher and founder of Herb Pharm, an herbal products manufacturer, arnica is specifically recommended for internal injuries, such as those resulting from car crashes or surgery. Smith finds no justification for the warnings commonly placed on arnica products.
In addition to recommending arnica tincture for internal use in pets and people, giving 1 drop per 15 pounds of body weight every three to four hours as needed, he recommends applying it to bleeding wounds and other injuries to reduce swelling, pain, and bruising.
I know from experience that if you act fast enough, within a minute or two of injury, full-strength arnica tincture stops pain on contact and prevents swelling and bruising, which is why I keep bottles in back packs, handbags, fanny packs, glove compartments, medicine cabinets, and kitchen cupboards.
A few weeks ago when Chloe, my three-year-old Labrador Retriever, lay down in the woods, I knew she was hurt. When she stood, she couldn’t put weight on her left hind leg. I checked her foot for cuts and splinters, but it was fine.
Having no idea what had happened, I opened a bottle of Weleda arnica essence, gave her four drops on the tongue, and saturated her leg from spine to toes, gently massaging her coat to help it reach the skin.
In less than a minute she put weight on the leg and within five minutes, as we slowly walked home, her limp disappeared. After a day of crate rest and additional applications of arnica, Chloe resumed normal activities at a sedate pace until her monthly chiropractic appointment.
Arnica tincture can be diluted with water for use as a compress. Mix 1 tablespoon tincture with ˝ cup water, saturate a towel or wash cloth, and hold it in place for 10 minutes every four to six hours. Homeopathic arnica tablets and ointments are popular sports injury treatments. These products are especially helpful for injuries near the eyes or mucous membranes, which an alcohol tincture would irritate. But for all other trauma injuries, arnica tincture is my first-aid first choice.
Flower essences, such as the famous Bach Flower Remedies, are made by placing flowers in water, exposing them to sunlight, and bottling the result. These “energy” essences resemble homeopathic remedies but address emotional rather than physical symptoms. (See “Flower Essence Therapy For Dogs,” March 1999.) The most famous such product is Bach’s Rescue Remedy, a blend of cherry plum, clematis, impatiens, rock rose, and star of Bethlehem essences. For decades, it has been given to people and animals to help them deal with shock, stress, and trauma.
Kris Lecakes-Haley, a Bach Flower Remedy practitioner at Animal Synergy in Phoenix, Arizona, calls Rescue Remedy one of the world’s top-selling stress relievers. “Even though Rescue Remedy and all of the Bach remedies are designed to work on the emotions,” she says, “they frequently have an immediate impact on physical injuries.”
At a dog show Lecakes-Haley attended, a Norwich Terrier was about to enter the show ring when he collided backstage with another dog. “He immediately began limping,” she says, “and I was amazed to see how many people came forward offering Rescue Remedy to the owner. She rubbed a few drops on his gums and paws and also on the impacted area. The dog shook, yawned, and then proceeded to prance limp-free into the arena. This is a classic example of Rescue Remedy in action.”
The same blend of essences, made by different manufacturers, is sold under the brand names Calming Essence, Five-Flower Formula, and Trauma Remedy.
Flower essences can be applied full strength a few drops at a time, diluted with water, added to herbal teas or hydrosols, or added to drinking water. Diluted flower essences can be sprayed in the air around the dog. Full-strength or diluted essences can be applied to paw pads and abdomen, dropped on the tongue, massaged into gums, applied to the inside ear’s bare skin, or placed on the nose.
The frequency of application matters more than quantity, and small amounts administered every hour or so can help any dog recover faster.
Herbs and Herbal Compresses
Several herbs have anti-inflammatory properties that help dogs with arthritis and sports injuries. Boswellia (Boswellia serratta), bupleurum (Bupleurum spp.), cayenne (Capsicum frutescens), devil’s claw root (Harpagophytum procumbens), feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium), ginger (Zingiber officinale), turmeric (Curcuma longa), and yucca (Yucca baccata) have all been used to relieve joint pain and increase canine mobility and range of motion. Most herbalists recommend short “courses” of herbs, such as five days on and two days off, to monitor the animal’s response, adjust dosage, or switch from one herb to another.
Some herbal products are blended specifically for dogs with arthritis, knee or elbow problems, or stiff joints, such as the Australian remedy DGP (Dog-Gone Pain), Animals’ Apawthecary’s Alfalfa/Yucca Blend, and Nature’s Herbs for Pets blends for Injury Relief, Joint Relief, and other conditions. Follow label directions.
For the treatment of sprains, muscle strains, and other acute injuries, Juliette de Bairacli Levy of Natural Rearing fame (see “A History of Holistic Dog Care,” July 2006) recommends rest and the application of wraps soaked in cold water and vinegar. “The herbal remedies are comfrey or mallow,” she says. “Make a standard infusion of either herb and bathe the injured area before applying bandages.” A standard infusion is made by covering 1 or 2 teaspoons dried herb or 1 or 2 tablespoons fresh herb with 1 cup boiling water. Cover and let stand.
To make a cold compress for acute injuries and areas of inflammation, let the tea stand until cool, strain, add a tablespoon or two of raw cider vinegar if desired, then refrigerate or place in the freezer until cold. If you’re in a hurry, brew a double-strength tea and add ice cubes to cool it. Soak a small towel or washcloth, wring just enough to stop dripping, apply to the affected area, and hold in place. After a few minutes, soak the cloth again and reapply. Replace the compress as needed to keep the area cold for 10 to 15 minutes. Repeat the treatment every two to four hours.
Peppermint is a cooling herb with pain-relieving properties; cold peppermint tea makes an effective compress for acute injuries.
Hot herbal compresses are called fomentations. For chronic pain and injuries that do not present swelling or inflammation, let freshly brewed or reheated tea stand until it’s comfortably hot, not scalding, then strain and apply as described above. As soon as the fomentation cools, soak the cloth again and reapply. Continue warming the area for 10 to 15 minutes and repeat every two to four hours.
Cayenne is a warming herb with pain-relieving properties, especially if applied regularly, so cayenne added to any herbal tea works well as a fomentation. Just be careful not to touch your eyes or your dog’s eyes or mucous membranes with cayenne. If you do, apply any vegetable oil to remove it as water won’t wash away capsaicin (cayenne’s irritating ingredient).
For more on herbal remedies for your dog, see "Using Herbs for Dogs", January 2016.
Whole Dog Journal contributor CJ Puotinen lives with her husband, Joel, and Labrador Retriever, Chloe, in New York.