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how to tell if your dog pulled a muscle

The essentials

  • Damage to canine muscles can be acute or chronic — Damage to muscles is a result of the tearing of the muscle fibers and disruption of the vascular or connective tissue support. There is a difference between strains and sprains, but both are tears related to limbs.
  • Muscle injuries are common in dogs — Strains or pulled muscles occur when dogs’ ligaments become overstretched. The strain often occurs from a twist or sudden movement.
  • Limping is a prominent sign of a pulled muscle — Some dogs may even go lame and won’t want to put any weight on their injured leg.

A pulled muscle occurs when your dog overextends or overworks its leg muscles and tendons. It can happen with any dog, as pulled muscles aren’t just for highly-active pets. For example, dogs that are obese or have arthritis can be prone to these injuries as well.

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What is a pulled muscle or muscle strain? 

A dog can pull a leg muscle by overextending or overworking its muscle or tendon. A pulled muscle will likely resolve itself independently, but you should see a veterinarian if you notice your dog is limping and in pain.

Sprains vs. strains

Strains and sprains are tears related to your dog’s limbs and are soft-tissue injuries. A strain is a tear or injury to the tendon. The tendon connects the muscle to the bone. A sprain is an injury to the ligaments that connect the bones. Both injuries can be painful if left unaddressed.

How to tell if your dog pulled a muscle: 5 signs

Your dog may cry out when the injury occurs and won’t want to walk. The injury will also be sensitive when touched.

  1. Limping. You may see sudden lameness and pain.
  2. Obvious trauma. The dog is no longer able to bear weight on a limb.
  3. Inability to flex joints. There is also often pain in and around the area of the tendon.
  4. Tendon inflammation. There will sometimes be redness and swelling around the joint.
  5. Plantigrade stance. This is when your dog’s hock drops to the ground. Clinical signs that present with rupture or avulsion of the calcaneal tendon result in this posture.

Causes of pulled muscles in dogs

Canines that compete in dog sports are often susceptible to muscle injuries. However, there are many other risk factors for pulled muscles, including obesity and those with some medical conditions. Always be prepared with a first aid kit — a cold compress applied immediately after a dog pulls a muscle may help.

  • Cranial cruciate ligament ruptures. While this is, by definition, a ligament injury and not a muscle injury, the inflammation it causes can lead to pain in the surrounding muscle tissues.
  • Falls or a traumatic slip. Senior dogs, or those with limited mobility, may benefit from ramps to avoid uncomfortable leaps onto the bed, sofa, or car. Place ramps in designated areas to avoid tripping accidents by humans.
  • Hiking and other highly physical activities. Always keep your dog on a leash so they are under control and cannot escape and injure themselves. Also, never push your dog beyond their physical limits.
  • Intense dog sports like agility. Warm up your dog’s muscles before extreme dog sports to avoid possible injuries. Make sure to keep your dogs fit, especially when participating in dog sports.
  • Myositis. This disease is where the dog’s immune system identifies its own muscle tissue as foreign and attacks it. The inflammation can lead to strains and pulled muscles.
  • Arthritis. Arthritis in dogs is inflammation of the joints, which causes stiffness, pain, and lameness. Regular exercise is recommended, but if your dog overextends their muscle, they are highly likely to injure it, so stick to shorter walks.

Diagnosing and treating your dog’s pulled muscle

A pulled muscle may take between four and six weeks to heal. Surgery is usually only required in severe cases. Typical treatment options vary from anti-inflammatories to strict crate rest. Vets will also prescribe pain medication to help with healing.

  • Your vet is the best one to diagnose a muscle strain. Vets also use diagnostics, including X-rays, labwork, ultrasounds, or MRIs.
  • Drugs may help with pain control. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs reduce pain and swelling.
  • Passive physical therapy helps with healing. This will prevent complications while your dog heals. Your vet will advise on which physical therapy modalities are appropriate. After about 10 days, mild exercise is OK.

Herbs like Arnica are also used to heal muscle injuries. Arnica is a small Alpine herb used for healing, and if applied within a minute or two of an injury, an arnica tincture can help stop the pain and prevent bruising. In certain cases where serious injury has been ruled out, some natural anti-inflammatories may help. If you have any questions, always ask your vet.

Preventing pulled muscles in dogs

Preventing pulled muscles is possible, but you must observe and watch your dog closely. Life happens sometimes! Dogs competing in dog sports like flyball, agility, freestyle, disc dog, fieldwork, and dock diving are candidates for injuries. This is especially true for dogs that don’t warm up, especially weekend warriors — Monday-Friday couch potatoes can hurt themselves.

  • Keep your dog at a healthy weight Overweight dogs are prone to a lot of health issues and muscle injuries.
  • Keep weekend warriors in tip-top shape —Your couch potato may not be ready for primetime sports. Perhaps dogs engaged in search and rescue are prepared, but their owners are vigilant!
  • Monitor dogs with arthritis — Any dog diagnosed with arthritis needs to be held back from rigorous physical activities, as these dogs can easily strain a muscle.
  • Add omega-3 fatty acids to your dog’s diet — Studies indicate that omega-3s contribute to healthy muscles and can help reduce injuries.

ZipZyme™ Omega is a fresh source of DHA, the most important type of omega-3. It’s sourced naturally from ocean algae, which helps preserve the metabolic enzymes for optimized efficiency in dogs. Those enzymes work to multiply the amount of DHA in the body, maximizing its benefits in pets that are healing from injuries.

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Frequently asked questions

How long does it take for a dog’s pulled muscle to heal?

It takes about 4 to 6 weeks for a muscle to completely heal. This may vary pending on the type of injury.

How do you tell if your dog has a pulled muscle?

Limping is the No. 1 sign. Take your dog to the vet immediately if they’re limping.

When a dog is limping on its back leg, is it a pulled muscle?

Yes, any type of limping is the most common sign of a pulled muscle.

What is a good treatment regimen for a dog that has pulled a muscle?

Your vet needs to determine the best treatment plan after your dog pulls a muscle, and pet owners should defer to them before starting any medication. A cold compress can be applied immediately following the injury.