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Sprains in Dogs

By: PetPlace Veterinarians

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A sprain is damage to tissue supporting a joint, primarily ligament damage. Ligaments are tough fibrous material that connect one bone to another. There are three categories of sprains and each may require different treatment.

Grade I. These are sprains in which a portion of the ligament is torn. The ligament still keeps the bones together and is still functional. Swelling and pain may be apparent.

Grade II. These sprains are those in which the ligament is partially torn or significantly stretched. The ligament still connects one bone to another but does not have the strength to function normally. Swelling, pain and inability to fully use the joint may be seen.

Grade III. This ligament damage is the worst type and is no longer a sprain. The ligament is completely torn and there is no longer a connection from one bone to another. A common example of this type of ligament damage is a torn cruciate ligament (in the knee).

The most common cause of sprains is trauma. Automobile accident, animal attacks or fights, falling from a high area or injuries during running or exercise are most commonly implicated.

What to Watch For

  • Lameness or inability to use limb or joint
  • Swelling
  • Pain


    Diagnosing a sprain can be done based on physical exam findings. Typically X-rays are done to determine if a fracture is present because the symptoms are similar. X-rays cannot determine the extent of ligament damage.

    Determining the grade of sprain can be more difficult and is generally done based on the physical examination. Sedation is sometimes required to allow the veterinarian to feel and move the joint while the surrounding muscles are relaxed.

  • Grade III damage usually results in significant damage and the joint is more moveable and flexible than normal.

  • Grade II sprains usually have some laxity in the joint but the animal can still use the joint and walk.

  • Grade I sprains usually have strong functional joints with some swelling and pain.


    Treatment of a sprain is based on severity.

  • Grade I sprains are treated with anti inflammatory medications and a short term splint to support and protect the joint. Recovery may take several weeks but the joint generally returns to normal function.

  • Grade II sprains are treated with anti-inflammatory medication. Splints may be used initially for support, but many of these require some type of surgery to stabilize the joint. With treatment, the joint can usually retain most of the normal function.

  • Grade III ligament damage requires surgery. Healing is prolonged and the joint may not return to full function.

    Home Care

    There is no home care for ligament damage or sprains. Treatment is recommended in order to speed healing and prevent further joint damage. Prior to veterinary care, keep your pet quiet and confined to a small area. Do not allow him to walk significant distances, jump or run.

    Once your pet returns home from treatment, strict confinement is crucial. If a splint was applied, keep it clean and dry. Watch the edges of the splint for rubbing or chafing of the skin. Watch the toes for swelling.

    Give anti-inflammatory or pain medication as recommended by your veterinarian.

    Preventative Care

    Most sprains are caused by some type of traumatic incident. Avoiding trauma by keeping cats indoor and leash walking dogs can greatly diminish the chance of injury. But pets are like children and accidents do happen. It is very difficult to suppress a happy playful pet when he really wants to play.

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