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Leg Cramps in Dogs (Charley Horse)

 

Leg cramps in dogs are not very common. In many cases, what looks like leg cramps in dogs turn out being some other sort of orthopedic problem affecting the dog’s leg. If you notice that your develops at times what looks like the canine equivalent of a leg cramp, as it happens in humans, it is best to see the vet to have it sorted out. The vet can carry out an orthopedic exam so to help pin point the problem and treat it accordingly. Following are some possible causes of what may look like leg cramps in dogs.

Leg Cramps in Dogs

Leg cramps (colloquially known as Charley horse) are often described as being painful, involuntary spasms typically affecting the muscles of the leg or foot. The pain generally lasts a few seconds to a few minutes and then subsides shortly. In many cases, among humans, relief is usually given by either massaging or stretching the affected foot, ankle or knee.

Dogs sometimes seem to experience something similar to leg cramps at times. Dog owners describe it as the dog getting a Charley horse or a sudden leg cramp.

The dog may be walking or running and then stops abruptly keeping the leg lifted for a few seconds. Some dog owners  state that during the “cramp” the dog hops on 3 legs and then he’s back to walking normally or the dog gets better once the leg is massaged a bit.

What look like leg cramps in dogs may be pain or discomfort triggered by a variety of medical conditions. If your dog seems to suffer from cramps, see your vet for proper diagnosis and treatment.

A Luxating Patella

Luxating patellas affect the dog’s rear legs.

Small dogs are particularly predisposed to developing this orthopedic issue, but large dog can get it too, even though not as frequently. A signature sign of this condition is a dog with a history of intermittent “skipping” as if hopping on three legs every now and then.

Dog owners often report that their dogs act as if they developed a “cramp” but a few seconds later the affected dog stretches the leg out behind him and the episode resolves. In other cases, the dog may approach the owner with a concerned look on the face and the owner rubs the leg and the dog feels better.

A luxating patella, also known as a “trick knee” is a condition that affects the dog’s rear leg knee cap. The term “luxating” derives from the word “luxation” which simply means “the dislocation of an anatomical part.”

What happens therefore is that the dog’s patella (knee cap) displaces from its normal anatomical positioning within the trochlea, the area of the knee forming the knee hinge joint with the patella. This dislocation causes dogs to “lock up” their leg because the knee cap rides out of place.




A luxating patella can present in dogs as a hereditary disorder, passed down from one generation to another, but it may also develop as a result of some traumatic injury. Treatment often involves surgical correction so to stabilize the patella and lower the chances for progressive arthritic changes.

” Some pets and owners have developed an almost symbiotic relationship in regards to patella luxations. When the pet luxates a patella they may approach the owner or ‘signal’ to the owner. The owner then massages, stretches or rubs the leg ultimately reducing the patella.”~Dr. Jennifer Au, veterinary surgeon

Leg cramps in dogs
Dog suffering from a torn knee ligament.

Other Orthopedic Problems

On top of luxating patellas, dogs are predisposed to a variety of other orthopedic problems that can cause what may look like “cramps” in dogs. In order to pinpoint these problems, your vet will have to feel your dog’s hips, knees, and if the vet suspects an issue with the dog’s spine, he may also palpate the neck and back for signs of trouble. At times, a herniated disc in the back may press on nerves and cause neurological issues that affect the dog’s back legs.

If the affected leg is a rear leg, the cramp-like pain may sometimes be caused by a torn cruciate ligament problem. This can be at times tricky to diagnose because affected dogs mostly feel pain when they are bearing weight on the leg, rather than when the leg is palpated.

This is because the knee ligament is surrounded by bones so it is nearly impossible to palpate, explains veterinarian Dr. Peter.  Diagnosis is in most cases obtained by the vet performing what’s known as a drawer test, which may need to be done with sedation.

If the affected dog in question is a young Scottish terrier, “scotty cramps” are something to consider. In this hereditary disorder, the Scottish terrier will develop a goose-stepping gait with arched spine which resolves after about ten minutes. These episodes may occur several times a day. While it’s true that “Scotty cramps” mostly affect Scottish terriers, at times other breeds can be affected.

And then there are cases where the temporary cramp-like discomfort derives from a strain, sprain, soft tissue, or muscle injury, which generally starts getting better with time.

A Possible Seizure 

Dog is Having Multiple Seizures
Seizures can take a quite toll of the dog’s body.

In some cases, what looks like a dog “locking up” his legs as if having cramps, may turn out actually being a seizure. Not always dogs lose consciousnesses when suffering from a seizure. Partial seizures can affect dogs too and during these episodes dogs never loose consciousness.

Affected dogs may have a twitch or spasm affecting their legs which may be interpreted as a ‘cramp.’ Some dogs may cry and act disoriented shortly after.

In this case, it may turn helpful recording the episodes on a camera or phone, and then showing it to the vet. A video is worth 1,000 words and the vet can see exactly what is happening.

It’s important to have any dog affected by seizures evaluated by a vet so to search for any underlying problems. Seizures in dogs may at times be caused by exposure to toxins or metabolic issues such as liver or kidney problems. If the episodes occur frequently enough, the vet may choose to place the dog on anti-seizure medications or the vet may decide to do a temporary trial with these meds and see if the episodes reduce or subside.




Controlling seizures in dogs is important, especially considering that long-lasting seizures or multiple seizures in dogs may cause permanent brain damage.

Reducing the Pain

Any signs that look like leg cramps in dogs should be investigated by the vet so to find the underlying problem. If your dog appears to have a muscle cramp in the leg from an orthopedic problem such as a temporary strain, sprain, soft tissue or muscle injury, there are some things you can do at home to provide temporary relief.

For instance, you can try using heat therapy for about 10 minutes at a time to help increase muscle blood flow to the area and aid with healing .

To do this, you can stuff a clean sock with uncooked white rice. Tie the end  so that is is closed and then microwave it for about 1 minute. Make sure the sock is not too hot. Shaking the rice inside can help distribute the heat so that it can be applied to the troublesome area. This warm compress can help reduce muscle inflammation and relax any twinges, explains veterinarian Dr. B.

As for medications or supplements, your vet may suggest several based on his or her findings. Sometimes cramps may stem from an electrolyte imbalance (specifically low potassium) secondary to kidney problems or another disease, explains veterinarian Dr. Joey.  An electrolyte imbalance can be detected with some blood tests. If electrolytes are low, the vet may prescribe electrolyte replacers.

Fluoxetine (prozac), diazepam (valium) or muscle relaxers may be prescribed. Some vets may suggest a vitamin E (alpha tocopherol) supplement for cramp issues as further suggested by Dr. Joey. Consult with your vet.

“Leg cramps are not common in dogs. Luxating knee caps, ligament injuries, cartilage tears and back pain are all more common.. You can try putting a very warm moist cloth on the leg for 10 minutes to hot pack it, but you will likely need to have your vet examine the leg to determine the specific cause.”~Dr. Scott


References:

  • DVM360: Patella luxations (Proceedings
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