Pet Health: Active and athletic dogs may need special veterinary care

Colorado State University Small Animal Sports Medicine specialist Dr. Felix Duerr examines a dog, August 21, 2014.

By Dr. Felix Duerr

Many of us with active and outdoorsy lifestyles have dogs that likewise are active and outdoorsy: It’s common to see people walking, running, hiking and playing fetch with their dogs. Many ranchers have herding dogs to help manage cattle and sheep. Gamebird hunters likewise take their working dogs on excursions.

Other people compete with their canine athletes in agility, herding, field trials, disc contests – even dock jumping.


Just as human athletes face risk of injury, our canine companions may cope with injuries as a result of strenuous activity and athletic competition. For this reason, the American Veterinary Medical Association in 2010 began officially recognizing the field of Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation, with specialties in both small animal and equine veterinary care. The AVMA recognition means veterinarians may train in the field – and may gain board certification in providing specialty care.

This new veterinary field aims to prevent, diagnose and treat injury by promoting expertise in the structural, physiological, medical and surgical needs of athletic animals – and in the restoration of normal form and function after injury or illness.

Here at Colorado State University, we have specialists in both small animal and equine Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation; we have seen fast-growing interest in these veterinary services among dog and horse owners with active and athletic animals.

The related specialty of veterinary orthopaedics has been around for a long time. Small animal orthopaedists – just like those in human medicine – treat musculoskeletal injuries, such as bone fractures and ligament injuries, and perform joint replacements for arthritic joints.

Small Animal Sports Medicine adds the focus of injury and arthritis prevention; this is especially important for the canine athlete, since it is difficult to restore full function once an injury has occurred. If an injury occurs, however, Small Animal Rehabilitation helps restore function as quickly as possible, and as close to normal as possible.

How to prevent musculoskeletal injury and disease

duerr.source.2If you have an active dog or a competitive canine athlete, we suggest the following steps to help prevent musculoskeletal injury and disease (you’ll probably notice that these are among the same tips that would be provided for human athletes):

  • Keep your dog’s body condition very lean. Ligaments and joints are more stressed in overweight dogs, and hence are more prone to injury. Ask your veterinarian about how to assess your dog’s weight.
  • Condition your dog appropriately for activities, events or competitions. It’s a good idea to provide a consistent – even daily – exercise or training regimen that resembles your dog’s “job.”
  • Cross-train! Perform different types of activities to keep training interesting for your dog and to help him use different muscle groups.
  • Make sure to provide a warm-up before physically demanding and explosive activities. For example, before rigorous ball-fetching, let your dog trot around or jog with her.
  • Provide a healthy, balanced diet for your dog. Nutrition is a key factor for optimum performance! This is another good topic to discuss with your veterinarian.

We always hope that preventive steps will keep injuries at bay. But if your dog has a problem, it’s essential to recognize it early. This is a key to restoring your dog to full function.

Symptoms to watch for

Keep an eye on the following activities to identify problems that could warrant the attention of an expert in veterinary sports medicine:

  • Monitor your dog for subtle changes in performance. This includes slower times, knocking bars, not retrieving, or simply not wanting to play as much. Most dogs will not show obvious signs of pain with mild injuries – so it is important to watch for very subtle symptoms.
  • Watch your dog standing up and laying down. Stiffness or trouble getting up could be a sign of injury; some dogs demonstrate these symptoms only after a period of rest.
  • Watch your dog for any weight-shifting, or favoring a leg, when standing. In a square stand, most dogs will put weight evenly on the legs.
  • Palpate your dog’s muscles and joints. Check for swelling, pain or any difference between the left and right leg; observe whether joints can be moved through full range of motion.
  • Watch for an up-and-down movement of the head or the pelvis. It is an indication of lameness if such a movement is asymmetric, or unbalanced.

Demanding work and athletic competition – whether among people or dogs – require attention to health and the potential for injury. When it comes to your canine athlete or active companion, veterinary specialists can help your dog maintain or return to top performance.

Dr. Felix Duerr leads the Small Animal Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation service at Colorado State University’s James L. Voss Veterinary Teaching Hospital. He is board certified by the American College of Veterinary Surgeons and the American College of Veterinary Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation.

James L. Voss Veterinary Teaching Hospital