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  • Writer's pictureComplete Canine

The pain of a strain

Muscular strains can have debilitating effects that go on for days, weeks, months and even years. Clinical canine massage can help speed your dog along the road to recovery.

Labrador-Collie cross laying on the floor
A badly strained muscle can cause severe pain and long-term mobility problems

Your dog’s just finished chasing around after their ball, or taken a big leap out of the back of the car, or collided with another dog whilst running in the park, and now they’re limping - maybe a little, maybe a lot.

Some might say: “oh, they’ve probably just pulled something”, but what does this mean?

Well, saying ‘just’ might be underplaying the seriousness of your dog’s condition for starters.

Jack Russell Terrier turning mid-run to catch a ball
Repetitive ball chasing is a common cause of strains

What is a strain?

A strain is damage to the fibres of a muscle and / or its tendon/s when they are over-stretched or torn as a result of a muscle being lengthened beyond its limits, twisted or contracted too quickly.

Some strains are more serious than others

Muscle strains are categorised into one of three grades, or levels of severity:

Grade 1: mild strain, the dog feels some pain and tenderness but motion is not impaired and there is no loss of strength in the muscle. Typically swelling is not obvious and the defect isn’t palpable;

Grade 2: moderate strain, tenderness and pain is more marked, loss of muscle strength is evident and associated joints have a reduced range of movement. Swelling can be observed and it is possible for a clinical massage therapist to feel the damage when palpating the muscle / tendon;

Grade 3: severe strain, the muscle / tendon is very tender and painful, swelling is easily recognisable in the area where muscle / tendon fibres have been torn, and the damage is clearly palpable. The muscle loses a lot of strength and its range of motion may be considerably reduced.

Hind paw toe-touching the ground
Not taking weight fully on a leg can indicate a strain

What are the symptoms?

  • Immediate pain at the time the strain occurs, followed by tenderness of the muscle and tendon

  • Localised bruising, swelling and inflammation may occur

  • The muscle can spasm which sometimes develops into a cramp

  • Muscle weakness and reduced range of muscle motion with all but mildest strains

Your dog may be:

  • Unable to weight-bear evenly or to move normally, and may appear stiff

  • Hesitant or unable to jump on / off furniture, in / out of the car, go up / down stairs

  • Less playful

  • Avoidant of being touched

  • Intolerant of other dogs

  • Vocalising pain e.g. crying-out / whimpering

  • Showing signs of depression and / or other out-of-character behaviour such as reluctance to eat.

Border Collie turning fast around a cone
Sudden changes in direction and speed are risk factors for strains

Not all strains happen suddenly

Acute strains - are the ones that happen fast, and are often caused by sudden changes in direction or speed when moving, over-reaching, falls, awkward landings following jumps, and collisions.

Chronic strains - can arise from overuse of muscles and tendons, during activities involving prolonged and repetitive movements, for example, walking on slippery laminate flooring every day.

Dogs living with orthopaedic conditions such as arthritis, hip or elbow dysplasia and cruciate ligament disease have an increased risk of experiencing chronic strains as a result of suboptimal and compensatory patterns of posture and movement.

Yes, you can get scar tissue on the inside of your body!

When muscle fibres are torn, your dog’s body is not able to lay down new muscle fibres, so instead it lays down scar tissue: a connective tissue composed of collagen fibres which bind to the damaged muscle fibres, sticking them together.

Unfortunately, the collagen cells are not laid down uniformly in line with the existing healthy tissue cells. This means the scar tissue at the injury site isn’t as strong as the original tissue it replaces, and is unable to resist the same degrees of tension and stretch. In addition, the arrangement of scar tissue can lead to shortening and deformation of the surrounding soft tissues, reducing their flexibility. Together these effects result in a loss of muscle power since the muscle is unable to fully stretch and contract, and also increase the likelihood of a re-strain to the muscle.

Problems with scar tissue can lead to a dog showing signs of stiffness, lameness, gait changes, abnormal posture, depression and loss of appetite.

3 main stages of healing:

1. Acute: the ‘inflammatory stage’, usually lasts for about 2 to 4 days, begins as soon as the injury occurs. Symptoms of localised pain, swelling, redness, heat and reduced range of motion are most severe at this time, as the body’s inflammatory response works to protect the damaged area and prepare it for repair. Scar tissue starts to form during this stage.

Lady walking dog on lead in field
Short, gentle lead walks give tissues a chance to heal

2. Sub-Acute: starts around 2 to 4 days following the injury, may last for a few days or several weeks. Inflammation decreases during this period enabling a greater range of movement, although pain may still exist, in particular when the muscle reaches the limit of its range of motion. This is the main period of scar tissue production as the formation of collagen and new localised blood vessels peaks at the injury site.

During the early and intermediate phases of the sub-acute stage, the new tissues are fragile and vulnerable to damage, therefore the intensity of any exercise and the loads placed on the healing structures must be carefully managed.

3. Chronic: starts more or less at the end of the sub-acute stage, can continue for weeks, months or years. Pain generally only occurs as a result of overuse of the injured muscle / tendon, or at the far extent of its range of motion. Maturation and remodelling of the scar tissue takes place which both increases its tensile strength (as more linkages are made between the collagen fibres), and enables it to tolerate greater stretch forces (as the collagen fibres are realigned to join the original tissue fibres in the right planes of stress). The process of remodelling is accelerated and optimised by using clinical massage therapy.

How clinical massage can help rehabilitate soft tissues following muscular strains

When one or more muscles are strained, the body tries to protect these muscles from further damage by shifting effort to other parts of the musculoskeletal system. This means that joints, muscles and other soft tissues away from the injury site have to work harder and / or in ways they are not designed to be used, in order to compensate for the reduced activity of the strained muscles. This can lead to secondary tissue restrictions and injuries.

Dog laying down being massaged
Locating and remodelling scar tissue

A Canine Massage Guild therapist can help with rehabilitating both the primary area of injury (the strained muscle/s), and areas of musculoskeletal compensation, by:

  • Pinpointing the precise area where the muscle fibres have been torn by using their advanced palpation skills to identify changes in texture of the muscle

  • Helping accelerate and optimise the process of scar tissue remodelling in the area of the strain, by helping to realign the collagen fibres of the scar tissue into the right planes of stress alongside the original healthy muscle fibres, thereby improving the damaged muscle’s ability to contract and lengthen;

  • Locating and releasing restrictions such as trigger points and adhesions in muscles and fascia (the connective tissue that surrounds and permeates the muscles), helping to relieve muscles which are tight, stiff and suffering from spasms or cramps, and reduce associated pain and dysfunction;

  • Promoting muscular relaxation and thereby increasing flexibility of muscles and optimising their range of motion;

  • Helping restore pliability to fascia which has thickened around muscles in response to chronic stress, and alleviating any associated compression of muscles and nerves;

  • Enhancing blood circulation which means more oxygen and nutrients are delivered to the muscles. At the same time cellular waste products and toxins within the muscles are more quickly removed. This dual effect helps to keep muscle tissues healthy and reduce soreness and fatigue.

Find your local Canine Massage Guild therapist by visiting

Avoiding muscle strains

Dogs are natural athletes and accidents happen, however there are lots of things you can do to protect your dog’s body and minimise the risks of a strain:

  • Lift your dog in and out of the car, or invest in a ramp

  • If your dog is welcome on the furniture at home, make sure they are not jumping up or down from great heights. Lift them or create steps e.g. place a footstool by the sofa/bed, to make the jumps smaller

  • If you have hard flooring in your home, place non-slip mats and runners along your dog’s main walking routes, at the top and bottom of stairs / steps, in any hot-spot areas where your dog tends to run and slip, as well as alongside food and water bowls, dog sleeping areas and any furniture that your dog hops on and off of

  • Minimise your dog’s use of stairs / steps e.g. use a stair gate to stop your dog following you every time you go up and down stairs during the day

Gundog carrying dummy whilst jumping log
Muscles should be warmed-up and cooled-down before and after vigorous activity
  • Ditch the ‘chucker’ – never use a ball launcher to play ‘fetch’ with your dog. They send the ball too far, too fast, and cause your dog to accelerate, decelerate and to twist and turn too quickly when trying to catch the ball

  • If your dog takes part in working or sporting activities with you, ensure that they are fit for the level of activity you are asking of them, and that their muscles are suitably ‘warmed-up’ and ‘cooled down’ before and after vigorous activity.

You can learn how to get your dog fit for action with the correct exercise programme. Find your local Canine Conditioning Academy Instructor at

You can learn how to correctly prepare your dog’s muscular system for activity, and how to optimise muscle condition post-activity, by learning how to massage your dog for work or sport. Visit


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