Canine Athletes and Athletic Injuries

Pet Tales

by Barry B. Burtis D.V.M.

With the London Olympics quickly approaching, athletes will be much in the news. It is quite amazing to see these competitors display their prowess after years of dedication to training and commitment to participating in their chosen sport. Many of them will have overcome injury and setbacks to arrive at the proficiency they now possess. It reminds me that this is another area where our canine companions closely resemble us.

Although dogs are not yet competing at the Olympics, many dogs are enjoying athletic activities. It is no longer just greyhounds racing for glory or sled dogs showing their endurance and strength in the Iditarod who are canine athletes. In the last few years many sports have become popular for dogs. Agility trials, flyball, disk dog competitions, tracking and dock jumping could all be included in those activities. Canadian Kennel Club sponsored agility trials are scheduled throughout the year in various locations across the country. The North American Flyball Association (NAFA) sanctions over 350 tournaments hosted by over 125 United States and Canadian clubs.

There are many different canine breeds who compete in these events and many participants enjoy quite a normal pet lifestyle when they are not being weekend warriors. Few would disagree that the canines involved seem to genuinely get pleasure from these sporting pursuits and it’s entertaining and enjoyable for the humans who accompany them. However, while there are many positives for everyone involved in canine sporting activities, just as with human athletics, there are associated injuries that can occur. It is important to be able to recognize some of these ailments that can happen, how to treat them should they occur and perhaps steps that could be considered to prevent or protect against these injuries.

Foot injuries are certainly one of the more common problems encountered by sporting dogs. This may include cuts, abrasions or lacerations of the foot pads, as well as nail trauma. Full thickness foot pad lacerations usually require stitches to close the wound and bandaging to assist in the healing. Antibiotics are usually recommended for both cuts and puncture wounds in this area.

Injury to other locations in the front legs also can occur. In both agility and flyball the shoulder joint is particularly susceptible to problems. As a result of jumping over A-frames or other hurdles, there is considerable impact on landing to the forelimbs. Dogs usually land on the same foreleg, then the other, each time. Hence, in both practice and competition that dominant limb may be predisposed to injury. Pain and stress fractures in the long bones of the front legs have also been seen in dogs involved in the sports mentioned above, as well as in racing greyhounds and gun dogs.

Muscle, tendon and other joint injuries are other problems experienced by canine athletes in both the front and the hindlimbs. Muscles can be bruised, become inflamed or even torn in some cases. A muscle sprain may be mildly painful leading to a modified gait, difficulty rising from rest and underperformance. However, when bleeding occurs into the muscle fibers, severe pain can be present if there is compression and inflammation affecting nearby nerves. Additionally, dogs performing athletically may exacerbate underlying conditions such as hip dysplasia or osteoarthritis in other joints. Tendons and ligaments also may be subjected to increased or modified strains or forces during athletics. The anterior cruciate ligament in the knee joint, the Achilles tendon at the heel and tendons controlling toe movement are some of the ones more likely to be injured.

Fortunately, there are treatments ranging from rest only to the use of medications or surgery to respond to most of these injuries, should they develop. No injury should be life threatening. It is important, though, to be aware of them and watch for them. Veterinary care should always be the default response should there be any concern with the health or performance of a canine athlete. Barry Burtis is a local companion animal veterinarian. Past Pet Tales can be found at