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Muscle and joint disorders in dogs

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Disorders of the muscles and joints are common in dogs. The muscles, joints, and bones act as a series of levers and pulleys to move the limbs and the body in general. Ligaments are strong, fibrous bands of tissue that connect bone to bone, while tendons connect bone to muscle. Joints are lined with cartilage, which cushions and separates the bones. Joint capsules surround and stabilize the joints, forming a reservoir for joint fluid, which lubricates the joints.

Some joints, like the knee and elbow, act like hinges and are stabilized by heavy ligaments and tendons. Other joints allow more of a circular movement because their anatomy resembles a "ball and socket." For example, in the hip joint, the top part of the thigh bone (or femur) is shaped like a ball, which fits into the socket of the pelvis.

Disorders of the muscles, ligaments, tendons, or joint capsule are termed soft-tissue injuries. These are very common in pets (especially overweight dogs), just as they are in people who often pull a muscle or twist an ankle. Falling, running, and jumping can stretch or tear these soft tissues, causing pain and inflammation. Pets will usually limp or favor one leg, and they may cry in pain if the leg is handled.

Disorders of the joints are also common in pets. A frequent problem is arthritis, which is defined as inflammation of the joint. In older dogs, the joints have undergone years of wear and tear, leading to arthritis. Common signs of arthritis include morning stiffness, swollen joints, decreased activity, and limping. The arthritic process can be accelerated by previous fractures, joint infection, or hip dysplasia, which creates friction and increased wear in the joint.

To determine the type of problem, your veterinarian will perform a physical examination and possibly recommend x-rays to look for signs of arthritis, as well as to confirm that there are no broken bones in your pet. In some cases, it may be necessary to obtain a small sample of joint fluid for analysis.

Often, the best treatment for soft-tissue injuries in your pet is rest and occasional use of anti-inflammatory medications. However, if a tendon or ligament is torn or ruptured, surgery may be necessary. For example, a torn cruciate ligament in the knee requires surgery to stabilize the joint and to minimize long-term damage and arthritis. Your veterinarian will prescribe the best treatment for your pet's muscle or joint injury.

Never, ever give your pet any medication without your veterinarian's advice because many over-the-counter human drugs can be harmful to pets. For example, acetaminophen (eg, Tylenol(r)) can cause serious blood problems, especially in cats.

Keeping your pet at a healthy weight is the best preventive for soft-tissue injuries. Overweight pets are less well able to move around and have a much greater risk of injury and arthritis.

Q&A

How do the muscles and joints work?

The muscles, joints, and bones act as a series of levers and pulleys to move the limbs and the body in general.  Some joints (eg, knee and elbow) act like hinges that are stabilized by heavy ligaments and tendons, whereas other joints (eg, hips) allow more of a circular movement because their anatomy resembles a “ball and socket.”


What are soft-tissue injuries?

Disorders of the non-bone elements (ie, muscles, ligaments, tendons, or joint capsule) of the limbs are termed soft-tissue injuries.  Such injuries are very common in pets because falling, running, and jumping can stretch or tear soft tissues, causing pain and inflammation. 


What is arthritis?

Arthritis is defined as inflammation of the joint, and is common in older pets, especially those with old fractures, joint infections, or hip dysplasia. 


How are these conditions diagnosed?

Preliminary diagnosis is based on a characteristic history and physical examination.  However, your veterinarian may need to take X-rays to pinpoint the diagnosis and rule out other problems.


How are these conditions treated?

The best treatment for soft-tissue injuries is often rest and occasional use of anti-inflammatory drugs, although surgery is sometimes needed to repair a tear or rupture.  Arthritis is also treated with anti-inflammatory drugs, although surgery is again sometimes needed.  All pets should be kept fit and trim, because overweight pets have difficulty moving and are at much greater risk of injury and arthritis.




Credit: Written and reviewed by John A. Bukowski, DVM, MPH, PhDand Susan E. Aiello, DVM, ELS
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