Dog first aid for strains and sprainsSprains and Strains are both difficult to differentiate by a layperson and can be difficult to diagnose.

Firstly, let’s differentiate them:

Strains relate to damage of a muscle-tendon unit. Think of the leg bone as an example, and the tendon that attaches muscle to bone.

Sprains relate to damage of a ligament, which attaches joints, they secure bone to bone.

Sprains and strains can be further characterized as chronic or acute, as well as mild, moderate and severe in nature.


Acute strains or sprains are generally a result of an over-extension or flexion of a muscle-tendon unit or ligament.

Chronic relates to a repetition trauma, constant or nagging. Often referred to as persistent.

Mild, moderate or severe sprains and strains refer to the level of the injury.

Along with sprains and strains comes lameness in varying degrees together with swelling at the injury site.

Chronic sprains are more likely to have much more swelling than a chronic strain and are more likely to have significant evidence on an x-ray. Swelling at the injury site generally increases but it is subtle and only confined to the injury site.

It is rare that the swelling is obvious by simply looking at the leg, this is better left to a vet.


Lameness; those hops, skips and limps.

Mild strains and sprains may have very minimal lameness.

Moderate strains and sprains usually present themselves with a very noticeable lameness.

Most lameness is usually exaggerated with activity.

Severe strains and sprains usually come with severe lameness. It may even be that the leg is not being used at all.

Hopefully the above will have defined the terms used. Let’s look more closely at the diagnosis and treatment of these injuries.

It always helps to know how it happened, was it a play injury? Chasing? catching a toy or stick? This is called the history.

Evaluating the gait and manner in the way the dog is walking may be the deciding factor as to whether you should be visiting the vet because only careful palpation of the affected leg by a veterinarian, as well as x-rays may show the full extent of the injury.

It may be that you have chosen to undergo first aid for a day or two to see if the injury can be managed successfully at home but if the dog is not coping at all, you must go to the vet.

Severe strains and sprains as well as those that are chronic are less likely to heal quickly without a surgical procedure of some degree but acute, mild and moderate injuries may well benefit from initial cooling of the injury site.

Don’t put ice directly onto the dog, but make an ice pack or use frozen peas, wrapped in a clean tea towel.

If your dog tolerates this treatment (even with restraint) the ice pack needs to be placed on the injury site for at least 20 minutes, then take it off for 20 minutes and re-apply for a further 20 minutes.

You might want to bandage the ice pack on the injury for 20 minutes.

This treatment can certainly be beneficial to reduce swelling and pain and should be continued as much as is possible until the swelling is reduced.

48 hours of this treatment on and off (not every 20 minutes!) with no exercise, just short toilet walks, will be a good measure before deciding whether to go to the vet.

If the dog is still not bearing weight on the leg within an hour or two after ice treatment, or is still limping after 48 hours, go to your veterinarian.

Be mindful that whilst I quote a couple of days, it could take several days in total.

Once we have used our cold compressions, it is important to apply moist heat to improve circulation. Use a damp towel warmed in the dryer or use your microwave, but ensure the towel too hot that it will burn the skin.

Apply this moist heat about 20 minutes. Then, remove it for at least an hour before applying again. Repeat this several times a day for three to four days as it will promote the blood flow to the affected area and speed the healing process.

Most mild injuries don’t warrant medications unless prescribed or advised by your vet.

It may be that muscle relaxants are appropriate for strains to ease the pain and discomfort associated with muscle spasms. It is unlikely to see spasms in the case of sprains.

Pain relievers and anti-inflammatory medications are certainly more appropriate for strains or sprains as they may decrease the lameness, but be mindful that while the lameness may be improved, it does not mean the healing process is over. It is an artificial improvement.

Medications may work to some degree, icing, and hot compressing are extremely important, but the most crucial part of this treatment is rest for healing to take place. Ignore this and you greatly enhance the probability of re-injury. Cause and effect means you increase the probability of the problem becoming chronic.

It is time to abide by some rules.

Stick to walking on a lead until the dog can happily weigh bear.
Avoid stairs if possible.
No jumping.
Don’t ‘test’ the leg.

We hold regular dog first aid courses throughout the UK, email us on to find out if we have a canine first aid course near you.