by Kim Henneman, DVM, DIPLOMATE ABT, FAAVA, CVA, CVC
For clients with active dogs, the change of season from summer to winter only means a change in the type of activity, not a change in its quantity. Winter means recreational activities such as snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, bounding after family members on toboggans and sleds or simply changing the daily walk from sidewalks and grass to icy roads and snow. Constant activity on uneven or slippery surfaces of snow and ice, as well as contact with the sand and salt often used to treat roadways, can lead to lameness diagnostic challenges not typically found in other seasons. When both athletic canines and caretakers ignore early warning signs, more serious injuries occur.
While managing pain and inflammation is a critical part of lameness treatment, a thorough diagnosis of the injured tissue can allow for the development of a specific recovery treatment plan. Alleviating pain and inflammation is not the same as returning to full biomechanical function. A good diagnosis is just as imperative for the seemingly minor injury as it is for any other disease process.
Foot problems are probably one of the most common and easily overlooked causes of winter lameness. Snow buildup on the interdigital hairs can be prevented by spraying cooking oil or applying musher's wax to paws and pads. Irritation from sand or salt can be avoided by rinsing feet upon returning home. Irritation from excessive exercise on abrasive snow or ice can be prevented with the use of booties, although caution must be exercised with fitting the bootie around the dewclaw. Non-infected pad cuts, cracking or worn areas can be treated by attaching moleskin with superglue to the affected area and the use of musher's wax or calendula cream.
Muscle strains can happen any time a dog runs, plays, or works on slippery surfaces of variable hardness. A weekend warrior pug or elderly but enthusiastic cattle dog playing on a berm of freshly shoveled snow will have the same stresses to soft tissue as an avalanche dog searching on the toe of a slide. In dogs without core strength, slipping on ice and snow can lead to moderate strains of propulsion and support muscles such as the quads, hamstrings, biceps (both brachialis and femoris), gracilis and triceps. Older dogs with arthritis, osteoarthritis of limb joints, or changes in spinal architecture will be particularly susceptible to muscle injury due to an inability to respond to sudden balance loss. An appropriate diagnosis can be done with gait analysis, digital palpation, joint range of motion and stress testing radiographs will be unremarkable with soft tissue injuries. Thermal imaging is an excellent tool for localizing the inflammatory or painful area; then the type of injury can be verified with ultrasonography.
Ligament and tendon injuries are common in the active winter canine athlete. Dogs can strain medial and lateral collateral ligaments of any joint with the sudden, twisting and shearing that can happen with slips and falls. The repetitive stress of walking or running on uneven snow or constantly tripping on the heels of cross-country skis or snowshoes can cause injuries to the collateral ligaments and flexor tendons of digits and carpi. A single hind foot punching through crusty snow can injure an Achilles tendon. Again, older animals with previously existing joint or spinal compromises will be more susceptible to injury.
Walking or running on ice or leaping on uneven snow piles can also lead to one-time or repetitive stress to joints, especially those of the lower limbs. Carpitis, tarsitis and phalangitis are common causes of vague and minor lameness in the winter. Keeping toenails short is critical for preventing digital and lower limb sprains.
The basic human sports medicine treatments of rest, ice and compression may be all that is needed to successfully help the active lame canine, if they're used swiftly. Cold laser, homeopathic remedies, topical liniments (if they can't be licked off), acupuncture and oral herbal formulas can also speed up recovery times. Early in injury, soft tissue therapies such as massage, Shiatsu and Tui na can be very beneficial.
Article excerpted from the Integrative Veterinary Care Journal issue V3I1