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Sprains and Strains in Cats and Dogs

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Sprains and strains involving the muscles, joints, tendons, and ligaments are common in dogs and cats, just as they are in people.  These are often referred to as “soft-tissue” injuries, to differentiate them from damage to the bones.  Soft-tissue injuries are more common in dogs than in cats, and they are especially common in large, active dogs.

Muscles move the legs by contracting and relaxing, thereby moving tendons that connect muscle to bone.  Ligaments are strong, fibrous bands of tissue that connect bone to bone, stabilizing and protecting the joints.  Joints are further protected by fibrous joint capsules that surround and stabilize the joints, forming a reservoir for joint fluid, which lubricates the joints.

Soft-tissue injuries are most common in large or overweight dogs because more pressure is placed on these tissues during movement.  Falling, running, and jumping can stretch or tear the soft tissues, causing pain, swelling, and inflammation.  Pets will often limp or favor one leg, and they may cry in pain if the leg is handled.  However, when pets become excited or nervous, they may temporarily ignore the pain, so that lameness may appear intermittent.

Diagnosis will begin with your veterinarian performing a physical examination.  He or she will examine the affected leg, checking for warm, swollen muscles or joints, for the full range of motion of the joints, and for signs of pain or joint instability.  Your vet may also want to watch your dog’s gait as you walk it back and forth (in the hall or outside) to gauge the area of the leg involved.  Although soft-tissue injuries themselves do not usually show up on an x-ray, x-rays may be needed to confirm that there are no fractures and to look for signs of arthritis.

Often, the best treatment for soft-tissue injuries is rest and occasional use of anti-inflammatory medications.  However, never give your pet any medication without your veterinarian’s advice because many over-the-counter human medications can be harmful to pets.  Surgery is sometimes necessary to repair a torn or ruptured tendon or ligament.  For example, a torn cruciate ligament in the knee requires surgery to stabilize the joint and to minimize long-term damage and arthritis.

The best way to prevent soft-tissue injuries is to keep your pet in good physical condition and at a healthy weight.  Pets that are overweight or out of shape have a much greater risk of injury.


What does the term “soft tissues” mean?

Soft tissues is a collective term used for muscles, joints, tendons, ligaments, and joint capsules, all of which are softer than bone.

What pets are most at risk of soft-tissue injuries?

Large, active dogs and overweight dogs are most at risk.

How are these injuries diagnosed?

Your vet will perform a physical examination to look for signs of pain, swelling, or joint instability.  He or she may recommend x-rays to rule out other bone or joint problems.

How are soft-tissue injuries in pets treated?

Treatment usually involves rest and judicious use of pain medication.  Surgery is sometimes needed to repair torn or ruptured tendons or ligaments.

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