Dog leg cramps are a lot like the human kind. If you've experienced this involuntary muscle movement, you know how suddenly they can occur without warning and how painful they can be. Involuntary muscle movements can also be a spasm, which is often nonpainful. However, there are some conditions that can cause severe muscle spasms that are painful. Thankfully, though, dogs don't commonly get leg cramps or serious spasms unless there's an underlying cause.
What are muscle spasms in dogs?
Both a muscle spasm and a muscle cramp are the involuntary contraction of a muscle or a group of muscles. For reasons that are sometimes unknown, the brain sends an electrical impulse to a muscle, causing the muscle to spasm or cramp. Spasms are often mild and not painful. Cramps are painful. One simple example of a muscle spasm is when someone's eyelid twitches. However, there can be more serious and sustained spasms due to disease.
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Symptoms of dog leg cramps
Although dogs can't tell you exactly what hurts, in the case of dog leg cramps, you'll probably be alerted by the dog's cries of pain. Leg cramps usually occur in only one leg at a time and may happen more frequently in one leg. Symptoms of a leg cramp are:
- Stiffened leg or other muscle twitching
- Leg held rigidly in an unnatural way
- Lying down suddenly
- Sudden difficulty getting up and down
How long do dog leg cramps last?
Leg cramps typically go away on their own within minutes. But if they don't go away or they keep recurring, take your pet to a veterinarian. In addition to a complete physical exam by a veterinarian, diagnosing an underlying medical condition will start with lab tests, such as bloodwork and a urinalysis.
What causes dog leg cramps?
There are a variety of causes for leg cramps. Dogs don't commonly get leg cramps unless there's an underlying cause. Although there are anecdotal instances of dogs getting leg cramps after vigorous exercise or being exposed to heat or cold, it would be unusual. Causes of leg cramps in dogs are:
- Muscle strain or sprain
- Neurological disorders, such as a pinched nerve
- Orthopedic diseases
- Spinal issue, like a slipped disc
- Metabolic or endocrine disease, like hypoparathyroidism or Addison's disease
- Electrolyte imbalances
- Diseases of the aorta
- Dancing Doberman disease
- Scottie cramp in Scottish terriers
- Paroxysmal movement disorders in cavalier King Charles spaniels, border terriers, Shetland sheep dogs, and Maltese
- Hypocalcemia (low blood calcium level), e.g. caused by hypoparathyroidism
- Distemper infection can cause a severe type of muscle spasms called myoclonus
Are some breeds at a higher risk for leg cramps?
Yes, some breeds are at a higher risk for leg cramps. These breeds include:
- Scottish terriers
- Cavalier King Charles spaniels
- Border terriers
- Shetland sheep dogs
In a small study, dog muscle cramps were also linked to lymphoma and protein-losing enteropathy in German shepherds.
Overexercise and muscle strain
Exercise is good for dogs, but sometimes, it's too much of a good thing. With overexertion, the muscles can become weak, depleted of oxygen, and unable to work. It's part of the body's safety mechanism that the muscle ceases to function so that it won't be further injured. Think about the last few days. Could your dog have overexerted during exercise? Did they exercise in a new way, or has there been a sudden increase in their activity level? A fatigued muscle may cramp suddenly.
A dog can also strain their muscle, which is a type of muscle injury that causes some amount of lameness. When your dog walks or runs, their muscles contract and relax, moving the tendons that connect the muscles and bones. Strains cause injury to the tendons. They're commonly seen in the hips and thighs.
Consider environmental and food toxins
If dogs ingest or inhale a toxic substance, it could affect them neurologically and cause sustained muscle spasms. Tetanus, caused by the bacterium Clostridium tetani, is a serious condition that affects the nervous system. It can cause severe muscle spasms in dogs, called tonic or tetanic spasms. Pesticides, like bait traps for insects and rodents, are also very toxic to dogs and cats and should always be placed out of their reach. The poison strychnine can cause severe spasms. Sprayed insecticides and herbicides could be inhaled by a dog or be licked when it remains on surfaces. This can potentially result in muscle cramping along with other symptoms.
Certain foods, medications, plants, and even the Bufo toad can be toxic to dogs, resulting in neurological issues such as seizures and, in severe cases, even death. Foods that can cause neurological issues are xylitol, caffeine-containing products, and chocolate. A toxic plant that can cause seizures is the subtropical sago palm.
If you know you your dog didn't ingest any of these dangerous foods or toxic substances and didn't leave them within your dog's reach, consider whether you or someone else took your dog to visit a neighbor and found these no-nos there. Or, if your dog goes outside of your yard whether as a routine or as an escape, they could have found such toxic edibles and nonedibles anywhere.
How do I treat my dog's leg cramps?
Since leg cramps are not common in dogs, your pet should see a veterinarian. If you try to massage or uncramp the affected area, it's possible that even a normally friendly dog may bite out of distress or pain. If your pet has recurring cramps, take detailed notes or better yet video of what's happening and show it to your veterinarian. They will develop a plan for diagnosis and treatment of your dog's leg cramps.
Depending on your pet's condition, treatment might involve a change in their physical activity, cold compresses, physical therapy, staying on top of their hydration during long periods of exercise, muscle relaxers, pain relievers such as anti-inflammatories, and supplements and addressing the underlying condition. Follow your veterinarian's directions for follow-up visits to help your pet recover as seamlessly as possible from the cause of their leg spasm, muscle weakness, or physical injury.
The bottom line
Thankfully, dog leg cramps are not common. This involuntary muscle movement is a painful contraction of a muscle or a group of muscles, usually in one leg. A muscle spasm is also an involuntary contraction, but they tend to be mild and nonpainful. If your dog has muscle cramps, they need to see a veterinarian to rule out an underlying cause.