Joint Injury in Dogs

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Overview of Canine Joint Injury

Joint injury is a traumatic injury to the structures within or surrounding the joint. The joint structures include: the articular cartilage, which is the cartilage that covers the bone within the joint; the joint capsule and synovial membrane, which is the tissue that surrounds the joint space; tendons and ligaments; and the synovial (joint) fluid. Trauma to any of these structures may result in joint injury.

Many times the injury is due to blunt trauma. This may cause tissue inflammation, swelling or more severe articular, or joint, damage. Pets hit by automobiles commonly experience joint injury.

Injuries that penetrate into the joint usually result in a joint infection. Bite wounds are a common cause. Exercise or even routine activity, such as running or jumping, can occasionally cause cartilage or ligament injury, often without any observed traumatic event. The most common of this type of injury is a cranial cruciate injury.

Severe trauma to the joint may lead to a fracture of the physis, which is that part of the bone next to the joint. Physeal fractures may be difficult to repair surgically.

Joint injuries tend to be fairly painful. Usually, only a single joint will be affected with a traumatic joint injury.

What to Watch For

Signs of joint injury in dogs may include: 

  • Acute (sudden) lameness
  • Joint swelling
  • External wounds on the skin around the joint
  • Heat and tenderness around the joint.
  • Diagnosis of Joint Injury in Dogs

  • A good history and complete physical exam are important in establishing an accurate diagnosis in dogs.
  • Sedation or anesthesia may be required to examine the joint fully. Dogs with acute injuries tend to resist joint manipulation since it tends to be painful.
  • Radiographs (X-rays) of the affected joint will reveal articular fractures and show joint swelling.
  • Arthrocentesis is the insertion of a needle into the joint space and withdrawing some fluid may help determine the nature of the injury. Joint fluid is submitted for microscopic analysis and culture.
  • If there is a history of severe trauma like an automobile accident, chest radiographs may be recommended to rule out chest trauma prior to surgical intervention.
  • Treatment of Joint Injury in Dogs

    An accurate diagnosis is needed for proper therapy. Pending a definitive diagnosis, certain treatments may be appropriate.

  • Strict cage rest allows for decreased mobility, less joint movement, and decreased pain.
  • External wounds, if present, should be cleaned.
  • Providing a supporting wrap or bandage may decrease swelling and help in pain control.
  • Pain relief using non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications or narcotics is very useful.
  • Home Care of Dogs with Joint Injury

    If veterinary care is not immediately available, certain steps may be taken. Restrict any physical activity as much as possible. Acute injuries, especially if the joint is warm, may sometimes benefit from cold-water compresses. Many times this will reduce the swelling.

    If a wound is present, you can clean it with warm soapy water or hydrogen peroxide. If possible, remove foreign debris and apply a light wrap.

    Contact your veterinarian to see if giving a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication like aspirin would be indicated to relieve the pain until seeking veterinary care.

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