Healing Sports Injuries

December 6th, 2008

This article first appeared in the September/October 2008 issue of Dogs Life.

From competition obedience to fly-ball and sled-dog racing, canine sports are more popular today than ever before. However, as exciting as these sports are, they can cause serious injury to dogs. Caroline Zambrano discovers the types of injuries that can occur and how natural therapies can help with treatment and prevention.


Dogs jump over hurdles, fly through tunnels, weave through courses of upright poles and chase discs at top speed. Its an exciting time for canine sports. An increasing number of dogs and owners are participating in athletic events because they are not only a lot of fun, but are also a great way to keep active and help to strengthen the bond between dog and owner.

However, its not all fun and games canine sports can cause serious injury to dogs, in some cases requiring surgery and post-operative rehabilitation, Sydney veterinarian Dr Angus Ross tells Dogs Life. 

Some injuries are acute and can happen at any age, such as rupturing a cruciate ligament or injuring a muscle or tendon. Chronic injuries are repetitive damage over a number of years, like chronic arthritis, he says.

Some sports injuries require anti-inflammatories or surgery, while other cases get relief from natural therapies, like physiotherapy, massage and acupuncture.

Dogs Life catches up with naturopath Carole Bryant, who is a member of the Holistic Animal Therapy Association of Australia (HATAA) and the Australian Traditional Medicine Society Ltd (ATMS), to find out how natural therapies can provide support before surgery and during the healing process.

Having owned German Shepherds for the past 30 years and still participating in performance events herself, Bryant is all too familiar with canine sports injuries and how to heal dogs naturally. Appropriate nutrition and supplementation can greatly assist and speed up the healing process, she says.

Bryant says a variety of sports can cause injury to dogs from agility, fly-ball and herding to obedience training, trailing and sledding. Even playing in the back yard can cause injury, she adds.

Causes of common injuries

Common injuries are caused by dogs twisting and turning too quickly, running into obstacles or running into each other in play, Bryant says. However, I believe one of the biggest causes of injuries is lack of fitness, she says. Overweight dogs jumping and unfit dogs training or competing in agility events [can cause injuries]. Dogs that are expected to take part in strenuous athletic activities, such as agility, require a high level of fitness and conditioning to avoid injury. Prevention is by far the best option.

The other major factor in injuries is poor conformation or physical construction. Repetitive, strain-type activities, like a dog obsessively chasing a ball or Frisbee, also puts a significant strain on the dogs system, Bryant says.

Conformation also plays a part a dog that is poorly constructed is much more likely to suffer an injury. For example, a dog with very straight shoulders and pasterns lacks the shock absorbency of a dog that has good construction. Repeated jumping will cause excessive jarring and is likely to result in injury, she says.

When taking part in sports or leisure activities with dogs, it is important for owners to be aware of their dogs physical limitations, Bryant explains. Dogs that are very heavy in front, for example, are also at risk of front leg and shoulder injuries because their weight is distributed unevenly, making it difficult for them to use themselves in an efficient way, she says.

Dogs that have less-than-perfect hips are also at risk of injury. Hip dysplasia can vary from mild to severe, and occurs in both purebred and crossbred dogs, as well as in small dogs. The belief that hip dysplasia is confined only to large purebred dogs is a myth, Bryant says. Conformation faults, such as long backs and poor angulation of the fore and hindquarters, also place a dog at a greater risk of injury.

Some breeds are also simply unsuited to some tasks. For example, asking a very long-backed breed, like a Dachshund, to jump would almost certainly result in injury. Add excess weight and a lack of fitness to poor or inappropriate construction for a particular task, and you have an injury just waiting to happen, Bryant says.

Another factor that places an animal at risk is poor balance and coordination. Dogs with poor spacial awareness are at much greater risk of injury, as they are unable to use themselves efficiently, she explains.

Temperament also plays a part in injury. A highly excitable, over-the-top dog is more prone to injury as it is likely to be careless about how it carries out its tasks, Bryant says.

What are the common injuries?

The most common injuries are to the musculoskeletal system, like the neck, back, shoulders and hind limbs. These are generally due to dogs placing too much strain on their muscles, joints etc.  

Chris Zink, a consultant on canine sports and award-winning author of Peak Performance: Coaching the Canine Athlete and several other books, explains in an article on canine fitness [at www.caninesports.com] that the heavier a dog is in relation to its height, the more stress will be exerted on the musculoskeletal system. Thus, although a Clumber Spaniel and an Afghan Hound may weigh the same, the Clumber Spaniel carries that weight on a smaller frame and will therefore create more stress on the musculoskeletal system while jumping, running, and some performance events, proper conditioning and appropriate modifications in training can provide significant compensation.

Bryant says a frequently overlooked cause of problems is head injury. A blow to the head can upset the delicate balance of the cranial bones and the whole cranial system. Injuries to the cranial system can have far-reaching effects throughout the body, both physical and behavioural, she says.

Natural therapies to treat sports injuries

Appropriate diet and nutritional supplements, herbs and homoeopathic remedies can all help support the animal while it heals, Bryant explains.

Natural therapists don’t consider that they provide the healing, but rather see it as a matter of giving the body what it needs to heal itself, she says.

Bodywork, such as massage, craniosacral therapy, Tellington TTouch and Bowen therapy, can all help keep the body functioning optimally by relieving muscle tension and assisting normal movement patterns.

Natural therapies can also help to prevent injuries, Bryant says. A strong, fit body is far less likely to be injured than a body with poor muscular and/or skeletal development, she says. Good diet, appropriate supplements, regular appropriate exercise and specific conditioning for the work the dog will be performing all add up to helping the dog develop a strong, fit body that is capable of doing the work it is asked to do.

Nutrition also plays a role in preventing injuries or during treatment. The old saying, you are what you eat applies equally to animals as to humans, she says. In my opinion, good nutrition is the foundation of good health. Good nutrition encourages a strong, healthy body that is less susceptible to injury or illness. In the event of injury, good nutrition and appropriate supplements can provide the body with the substances it needs to repair itself.

How to prevent canine sports injuries

How can you keep your canine athlete healthy and free of injury? 

         Choose a physically and mentally sound dog with appropriate conformation, movement and temperament for the tasks you have in mind.

         Feed a healthy diet with appropriate supplementation as needed.

         Ensure your dog is fit (regular exercise) and well-conditioned (through training and appropriate specific exercise for the particular tasks you have in mind). Have your dog checked and worked on regularly by an experienced canine bodywork specialist to maintain normal function. 

         In the event of injury, seek appropriate care to help your dog regain his/her health and fitness as quickly as possible small injuries that are ignored have a nasty habit of coming back later as much bigger problems. 

With care, your canine athlete can remain fit and healthy into old age, naturopath Carole Bryant says, adding that her 12-year-old dog has competed in a variety of disciplines during her career (including obedience, agility/jumpers, tracking, herding and endurance) and remains fit, healthy and able to fully enjoy her retirement.

Want to participate in canine sports?

Agility, competition obedience, fly-ball and sled-dog racing can be a whole lot of fun for you and your canine athlete, but it can also cause serious injury.

Consult with your vet if you are planning to participate in a sport with your pooch. A full body check-up and advice on preventing injuries and proper conditioning will help keep your dog out of the hospital and in the event ring.


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