Is your dog limping, lagging behind on walks or yelping during certain movements? Just like people, dogs can suffer from sprained and strained limbs, including a sprained leg or ankle. The good news is that most dog leg sprains aren't an emergency and can be easily solved. Equipped with some basic knowledge, you'll soon know how to help your dog recover from a sprain and get back on their paws.

Strains vs. Sprains

Strains are among the most minor injuries that can cause your dog to limp. A dog can get a strain by pulling either a muscle or a tendon — the connective tissue that attaches a muscle to a bone.

In contrast, a sprain is an injury to the ligament that connects two bones. Sprains are very common in dogs, especially among those who are overweight or who are very active and frequently jump up and down. While most sprains occur in the limbs, dogs can get sprains in nearly any part of the body.

Signs and Diagnosis of a Dog Sprained Leg

Lameness is usually the first sign of a dog sprained leg — this indicates your dog is in pain. Swelling may follow. If the leg becomes warm or hot, however, it's unlikely that the limping is due to a simple sprain. If the sprain goes unaddressed, lameness may continue and, over time, leg muscles may weaken. When atrophy occurs in one limb, the opposite limb absorbs additional pressure and stress, putting the otherwise unaffected limb at risk of ligament injury.

Your veterinarian should be able to accurately diagnose the cause of lameness in a single office visit. According to the Merck Veterinary Manual, the vet will likely conduct a lameness exam and may also use imaging such as X-rays and/or MRI. In addition, they may perform blood work to rule out infectious causes of limping, like Lyme disease, and to verify whether your dog is a good candidate for certain medicines.

Is There Such a Thing as a Dog Sprained Ankle?

Because of humans' upright posture, ankles bear the brunt of our weight and walking impact. It's no wonder that sprained ankles are the most common type of sprain among humans. But your dog's weight is distributed differently. The knees of a dog's rear legs absorb the bulk of the stress and pressure of their body weight, making them more predisposed to knee sprains rather than ankle sprains.

Treatment for a Dog Sprained Leg

Most dogs will experience limping at one point or another. But if your dog becomes acutely lame; develops limping along with a drop in energy, appetite or spirit; or if the lameness gets progressively worse, it's time to call the vet. There are many causes of lameness, and proper treatment can't begin until your vet accurately diagnoses your dog's condition.

If your vet suspects that your dog has a sprain, they'll need to rest. The vet may prescribe them a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medicine like carprofen or meloxicam, cold packs and/or a weight loss plan. Occasionally, a vet will recommend surgery.

While minor injuries to the cranial cruciate ligament may be treated with rest and medicine, most cases eventually require surgery. There are several procedures vets perform to correct this ligament injury. While your general vet may be able to perform the surgery, there's also a chance they'll refer you to a veterinary surgeon.

Preventing Strains in the Future

Obese dogs are more likely to suffer from ligament injuries such as cranial cruciate ligament injury. By keeping your dog at a healthy weight, you can decrease their chance of developing lameness-associated sprains and injuries. Talk to your veterinarian about nutritional support as well. If your veterinarian determines your dog is obese, they might recommend a therapeutic food to help your dog reach a healthier weight or one that helps with joint and mobility support.

Additionally, because dogs often get most of their sprains from jumping down, consider not allowing them on furniture like couches or beds, or provide them with an easier method for getting down like steps or a ramp.

Prognosis for a Dog Sprained Leg

While a sprain is more serious than a simple strain, most dogs make a full recovery from a sprained leg. The biggest challenge most pet parents face is convincing their active and energetic canine companions to take it easy for the roughly six weeks it takes for a sprain to heal. If it doesn't fully heal, there's a risk of re-injury. Over time, chronic repeated ligament injuries are more likely to require surgery, so remember to follow the vet's orders and do your best to restrict your pet's exercise — even if that means crate rest.

Dr. Laci Schaible Dr. Laci Schaible

Dr. Laci Schaible is a small animal veterinarian, veterinary journalist, and a thought leader in the industry. She received her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine from Texas A&M University and her Masters in Legal Studies from Wake Forest University.