My Dog Has a Swollen Leg
The comfort and function of all four of your dog's legs are essential to her everyday existence. Because a dog's mobility is one of her most valued attributes, the compromise of any aspect of the complex of vessels, nerves, muscles, and bones that function as one to facilitate the ability to move can be devastating. If you notice a swelling of one of your dog's legs, examine it immediately in an attempt to identify the exact cause and avoid the development of additional symptoms and potential disaster.
What to Look For
Before placing your dog in any specific position, observe her at rest, looking for signs of discomfort or asymmetry.
Identify the leg that is swollen, but start your exam by manipulating the contralateral, or opposite, leg. This will test your dog's ability to bear weight on the affected limb while giving you a baseline for comparison once you get down to examining it.
In each instance, begin by examining the toes one at a time, extending and stretching them individually, squeezing the bones and bending the joints and eventually feeling the spaces between them while stretching the interdigital webbing. Next, move on to the carpal, or “wrist” joint if it is the front limb, tarsal or “ankle” joint if it is the rear. The move itself should be performed by encircling the limb with your hand and sliding upward while squeezing. The joint should then be put through its full range of motion to check for discomfort or stiffness while listening for any cracking or grinding sounds. Now move on to the next joint, using the same encircling maneuver as before, eventually arriving at the elbow (front) or stifle (rear). Put this joint through its full range of motion just as you did the previous joint, checking for the same things. Ultimately you will arrive at either her shoulder (front limb) or hip (rear limb). Once you have manipulated this joint, checking its range of motion while looking for any signs of discomfort or any cracking or grinding sounds, you will have completed your exam.
What to Do
Next, ask yourself these questions:
- Has your dog recently been in any sort of accident or fallen? Traumatic incidents are a common reason for leg swelling in dogs. Your exam should have pinpointed the location of the injury, and your dog's response to manipulation may have given you a good idea of its severity. If at any point in this process your dog begins to cry out, struggle, or snap, stop immediately and let your vet do the rest!
- Did you see any bleeding or discharge? If closer scrutiny of the area reveals a puncture or laceration and there is bleeding or pus without severe pain, you may have a local infection to deal with. Try following the directions for treating an abscess in “How to Treat an Abscess” on page 25.
- Is the swelling generalized and associated with one of the major joints mentioned? Injuries that result in diffuse swelling of major joints of the legs are often serious. They may involve ligament, tendon, vessel, or nerve damage or some combination of them. The resulting joint instability predisposes it to further damage, and the swelling actually serves to prevent the joint from moving about and further harming itself. This is the type of injury that requires the help of a veterinarian experienced in orthopedics.
- Is there swelling and pain associated with one or more of the toes? Injured toes, although they are quite painful, are often left to heal on their own without a cast or splint, sometimes even when they are fractured. The reason behind this is that the pain is usually enough to prevent the dog from putting much weight on it. In addition, the splint or cast might actually be so bothersome that the dog could do more damage in her efforts to rid herself of it than if she were never to have been placed in a splint or cast in the first place.
However, if you noticed that the swelling felt like an overall sponginess that remains indented after you stop pressing, rush your dog to an ER. This condition is known as pitting edema and is quite serious. It could mean that your dog has vascular or lymphatic disease. In either case, a major animal hospital is where you should take her right away.
When to Get to the Vet
If your dog seems to be in a great deal of pain, skip the exam and follow the directions for transporting an injured dog included in “How to Transport an Injured Dog” [not available online]. Get her to a veterinary emergency facility immediately.
If your exam revealed a distinct coldness of any portion of the limb, get your dog to an emergency clinic immediately. Sometimes circulatory difficulties will result in poor venous return from the limbs and blood will pool in them, causing dramatic, puffy swelling. These legs may get quite cold.
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