Active sporting dogs, even well-conditioned ones, are at risk for injuries and orthopedic problems. Owners who look for signs of problems by checking their dogs over after a day in the field can help prevent pain and aid recovery.

Here is a review of the most common injuries and orthopedic problems seen by veterinarians: cranial cruciate ligament disorders, elbow dysplasia, shoulder instability and foot injuries.

If you observe any of these symptoms or suspect one of these injuries, consult your veterinarian immediately.

CCL Disease

When a sporting dog starts limping in a hind leg, it may be due to a problem with the cranial cruciate ligament (CCL). One of the main supportive structures of the stifle (knee) joint in a dog’s hind limbs, the CCL plays a key role in stabilizing the femur (thighbone) to the tibia (shinbone).

Comparable to the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in humans, the CCL functions like a rope, preventing the stifle bones from shifting during activity. Without the normal CCL stabilization, a dog’s movement is compromised and painful osteoarthritis develops.

Reluctance to bear weight on the leg, decreased performance and/or signs of pain in the stifle are often the first things an owner notices in a dog with a CCL problem. Swelling of the joint, clicking when walking, stiffness after exercise, sitting with the leg extended to the side, and holding the leg up also are common.

“While these signs may be noticed acutely after an incident or injury, they almost always are the result of a slow breakdown of the CCL and thus some degree of arthritis is invariably already present in the joint,” explains James L Cook, D.V.M., Ph.D., DACVS, DACVSMR, director of the Comparative Orthopedic Laboratory at the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine. “Owners who recognize these signs should take their dog to the veterinarian for a complete diagnostic evaluation.”

Trump LRC

Photo by Sheri Walsh

Elbow Dysplasia

Elbow dysplasia, which describes a group of disorders, is a common cause of lameness in a dog’s front legs. Large breeds and working and performance dogs are particularly susceptible to elbow dysplasia.

The disorder is caused by abnormal formation of one or more of the three bones that make up the elbow joint, causing cartilage and bone on the joint surfaces to develop improperly. This leads to fragmentation, detachment, fissuring, and/or wearing away of the cartilage and bone.

Early detection during puppyhood provides the best chance for successful treatment, though this can be difficult as the signs often are not apparent until a dog is older. Orthopedic examinations performed by specialists and radiographic screening through the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals are considered the best methods for early diagnosis.

“Elbow dysplasia is caused, in part, by genetics but can be exacerbated by athletic activities,” Cook explains.

Owners of dogs with elbow dysplasia report noticing changes in the dog’s gait and decreased performance and endurance in the field. Limping on a front leg or swinging the front leg(s) while walking also is common.

Shoulder Instability

An unstable shoulder can hinder a dog’s ability to work in the field.

“Dogs that run hard uphill and downhill are particularly prone to shoulder instability,” says Robert Gillette, D.V.M., DACVSMR, director of Veterinary Sports Medicine & Rehabilitation at the Veterinary Specialty Center in Buffalo Grove, Ill. “These injuries typically are the end result of a traumatic event and usually are seen in a dog’s lead shoulder. A dog may exhibit forelimb lameness or collapse at the end of a jump.”

Shoulder instability may start with subtle signs, such as a “head bob” when walking or trotting, decreased endurance or level of performance, or refusing to do certain activities, such as jumping or working in heavy cover.

Veterinarians diagnose the condition by conducting a complete orthopedic examination, which includes ruling out other problems, such as elbow dysplasia and elbow and foot injuries, which can cause similar signs.

Foot Injuries

Foot injuries occur frequently in dogs that work on rugged terrain. Among common foot injuries are fractures, ligament strain, synovitis, tendon inflammation, lacerations, bruises, and puncture wounds.

“Dogs’ feet can withstand a lot of wear and tear because of the keratin epithelium that covers the pads,” Gillette says. “The thick layer of skin provides protection for the foot’s tendons and ligaments, acts as a shock absorber and provides traction. However, the pads are not impenetrable.”

To help avoid foot injuries, owners should keep their dogs’ nails short. A longer nail gets caught on things resulting in toe fractures, dislocations and nail injuries.

It also is important to clean the dog’s paws and pads following a day in the field.  A good examination of the pads includes digital pressure applied to the bottom and sides of each pad, inspecting the webbing and closely observing the surface of the pads.

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Photo by Ed Collum

Tailgate Checks Can Prevent Problems

After a day in the field, it is a good practice to look your dog over, from head to toe, for signs of injuries. Start by putting your dog on a tailgate or table to examine him or her. Take this opportunity to observe the dog’s respiratory and heart rates as well. Be sure to check the following:

• Head — Check the nostrils and inside of the mouth for cuts

• Eyes — Pull the eyelids up and down to make sure the eyes are free of irritation, injury and debris. Flush with saline to clear debris if necessary

• Ears — Especially if the dog has been in the water, feel for burs, cuts or grass awns and look into the ear cavity

• Body — Slide hands up under the collar, down the chest, around the torso and under the belly to check for cuts and tears

• Legs — Feel down each leg and pick up each foot to look in between toes and on footpads for abrasions

• Coat — Run hands through the coat, especially longer coats, to feel for debris or grass awns

Checking your dog over each time you return from an outing allows you to identify and care for minor injuries that if left unattended could result in serious problems. A tailgate inspection is also a great time to gently massage your dog’s tired muscles after a hard day at work and reinforce the special bond you have.