Canine sports, such as agility, flyball, disc dog, dock diving, and Fast CAT® (i.e., fast coursing ability test), are enjoying increasing popularity in southeast Texas. Although these activities are incredibly fun and rewarding ways to bond with your furry friend, their physical requirements also pose unique injury risks to four-legged competitors. Whether your dog is a fine-tuned athlete or a weekend warrior, learn to recognize and—ideally—prevent these common canine sporting injuries, which our Neighborhood Veterinary Centers of Nederland team describes.  

Hind limb injuries in sporting dogs

The hind limbs—including the hips, stifles (i.e., knees), tarsi (i.e., ankles), and feet—power your dog’s movements and provide speed and lift when they jump. Large muscle groups, including the quadriceps and hamstrings, allow your dog to accelerate and decelerate with ease. 

The hind limb is a common sporting dog injury site. A hind limb injury can occur because of trauma or because a dog has a genetic condition that leads to an injury. Joint incongruity (i.e., improperly aligned bones), such as hip dysplasia, patellar luxation, and cruciate ligament rupture, can affect how forces are transmitted and absorbed through a dog’s body. Over time, these abnormal forces can contribute to degenerative wear and tear (i.e., arthritis), dislocation, rupture, and joint failure.

Hind limb injuries typically require surgical stabilization (e.g., hip replacement, tibial plateau leveling osteotomy [TPLO], patellar wedge resection), careful rehabilitation, and diligent pain management. Nonsurgical management can be successful in mild cases, however, your veterinarian may recommend withdrawing your dog from sporting activities because they may sustain a more severe injury as a result of their initial injury.

Digit injuries in sporting dogs

Your dog’s digits (i.e., toes) play a significant role in their stability, grip, speed, and turns. Each digit is made up of three bones, and a system of ligaments and tendons act as pulleys to extend and flex each joint, providing lateral (i.e., side-to-side) stability. Some of the most commonly reported canine digit injuries include:

  • Fractures
  • Dislocation (i.e., luxation)
  • Broken toenails
  • Paw pad lacerations or abrasions
  • Digital extensor and flexor tendon injury

Digit injuries typically result in non-weight-bearing lameness and therefore require activity restrictions—managed with time, rest, and pain medication. Fortunately, most digit injuries are not severe and should not end a dog’s sport participation. 

Forelimb injuries in sporting dogs

While standing, a dog bears 60% to 70% of their weight on their forelimbs. As you can imagine, this number increases exponentially during the running and jumping landing phase. High-impact activities, such as agility obstacle performance and flyball box turns, create excessive forces on canine carpi (i.e., wrists), elbows, and shoulders. If these forces aren’t evenly distributed, they can worsen arthritis pain, cause joint luxation, tear soft tissue attachments, or cause traumatic shearing action within or through a joint. Forelimb injuries can be challenging to treat and rehabilitate. These conditions may include:

  • Medial shoulder instability 
  • Shoulder supraspinatus tendinopathy 
  • Elbow dysplasia
  • Carpal hyperextension injuries 

Spinal injuries in sporting dogs

The spinal cord and its surrounding vertebrae and musculature provide coordination and stability between your dog’s forelimbs and hind limbs. The fragile spine is the nervous system’s superhighway for sensory information, connecting the appendicular skeleton to the brain for control and feedback.

Although the vertebrae and their intervertebral discs are designed to protect and cushion the delicate spinal cord, chronic concussive forces can cause discs to herniate (i.e., rupture), causing pressure on the spinal cord. Injuries can range from mild and chronic (e.g., intervertebral disc disease [IVDD]) to acute and severe (e.g., disc herniation, paralysis). Chronic IVDD can be managed with pain medication and modified activity, while acute disc injuries require emergency surgery to prevent permanent mobility loss.

Soft tissue injuries in sporting dogs

Your dog’s muscles, tendons, and ligaments provide support and stability to their joints, and power and control to their movements. Unfortunately, these supportive structures are a common place for traumatic or degenerative injury, especially when athletic dogs aren’t adequately warmed up or cooled down. Forceful contractions in unprepared joints cause disruption, such as tears, strains, and detachment injuries, which include:

  • Iliopsoas strain (e.g., groin muscle injury or tear)
  • Tendonitis and tendinopathies (e.g., patellar tendonitis)
  • Myopathies (e.g., muscle avulsion [i.e., attachment loss], strains, inflammation, insertion site pain)

A dog’s injury treatment and recovery will vary based on the affected soft tissue. Because tendons cannot heal on their own, surgical stabilization may be required. Muscle injuries, including iliopsoas strain, require a dedicated recovery process and severe exercise restrictions to prevent further damage to the joint fibers and prevent mobility-limiting scar tissue accumulation.

Arthritis in sporting dogs

Active dogs typically develop arthritis in one or more joints. This may include age-related degenerative joint disease (DJD) or osteoarthritis (OA), an inflammatory process that occurs naturally after trauma.

Although arthritis has no cure, the disease can be well controlled when you maintain your dog’s condition through safe exercises and manage their pain and inflammation through medication and pain-reducing therapies (e.g., laser therapy).

Injury prevention for sporting dogs

Despite their prevalence, many dogs’ sport-related injuries can be avoided or at least minimized. Our top sport-related injury prevention tips include:

  • Pre-performance and post-performance routine — Always ensure your dog adequately warms up and cools down.  
  • Core strength and conditioning — Sporting dogs require continuous training to maintain their strength, flexibility, and stamina. Underwater treadmill therapy can improve your canine athlete’s physical and cardiovascular fitness without increasing joint stress.
  • Monitoring for early signs — Early detection and intervention can prevent catastrophic or career-ending injury. Consult your Neighborhood Veterinary Centers of Nederland veterinarian if you suspect your sporting dog may be injured. 

For additional expert advice on caring for your canine athlete or to schedule a physical assessment, contact our Neighborhood Veterinary Centers of Nederland team.