27 Oct How to tell your dog’s muscles are tense
Author Marika Kuoppala, 2 June 2017
In my work as a canine massage therapist, I constantly hear dog owners fret about not being able to spot changes in their dog’s behaviour, movement, etc. early on, only noticing problems when they get bad enough to really stand out. This is perfectly normal.
Although we spend time with our dogs every day, we are at a disadvantage when it comes to identifying the early signs. Because muscle problems tend to develop gradually, we can become blind to the way our dog moves and only notice the issue when it has worsened to the point where it manifests as a limp or some other visible sign. To make matters even more difficult, dogs are masters at hiding their aches and pains, and the pain threshold is different for each dog.
The good news is that it is possible to train yourself to spot the early signs (and this is often what happens if you’ve had a dog with muscle issues). There are certain basic signs that indicate that a dog is experiencing muscle problems. I will next go over some of the most common signs that you can look for in the course of everyday life.
“If a dog suddenly stops stretching either altogether or partly, or starts stretching all the time, i.e. there is a change in its normal stretching routine, it has a problem.”
Getting to know your dog’s daily routines
How much a dog normally stretches depends on the individual, so it is important to learn your dog’s normal stretching habits. Does your dog stretch both front and back, or just one of the two? When getting up after resting, dogs typically stretch themselves. A healthy dog stretches several times a day. If a dog suddenly stops stretching either altogether or partly, or starts stretching all the time, i.e. there is a change in its normal stretching routine, it has a problem. When your dog gets up after resting, does it walk normally or does it look stiff? Does the dog flinch and quickly turn to look back, as if it saw a ghost?
When going for a walk, dogs with muscle problems may appear apathetic, try to avoid wearing a collar or harness, or even hide when they see that a walk is imminent. If you drive to your walking trails, look for signs of muscle tension in the way your dog jumps into the car: maybe your dog hesitates or seems to be measuring its jump before taking it, only puts its front end into the car, or refuses to jump altogether. When walking your dog, a good indication of stiff muscles is a shortened gait: if your dog prefers to pace or gallop rather than trot. Your dog may also be reluctant to walk or run, or may get tired more easily. If this is the case, there’s no point in trying to urge your dog along; it’s in your dog’s best interest to take the shortest route back and find out what might be causing this behaviour. When your dog is moving, look closely at how it moves: does its tail wag equally to both sides, does the tail lift up, does the dog carry its head unusually high or low, and can it lift its head above the topline?
If your dog is wet from the rain or a bath, look at how it shakes its fur. Does the shaking movement travel through the dog, from head to tail, or does the dog shake its fur cautiously and partially, for example not shaking its back end at all? The latter indicates a problem.
When feeding your dog, look at whether your dog can comfortably lower its head and eat with the bowl on the floor. Would it be easier if the bowl was higher up? Dogs with muscle problems sometimes stand with their hind legs tucked under them or with their back arched. After eating, dogs with stiff muscles may struggle to find a good spot to lie down. It looks as if the dog is not really comfortable anywhere – it keeps changing from one place to another and finds it hard to settle down. Similar behaviour can often be seen at night. This kind of restlessness is a sign of pain.
The good news is that it is possible to train yourself to spot the early signs (and this is often what happens if you’ve had a dog with muscle issues). There are certain basic signs that indicate that a dog is experiencing muscle problems.
When petting their dog, many owners mistake any twitches of the skin on the dog’s back for ticklishness, although in reality this is often an indication of muscle tension and pain. Muscle issues may also cause dogs to avoid being petted and brushed because this feels uncomfortable. At worst, dogs with muscle pain may become aggressive towards people or other pets who approach or walk past them. This kind of behaviour is often caused by pain and may thus require a visit to the vet. Sudden aggressive behaviour can never be passed off as ‘grumpiness’ or ‘bad character’ – a dog’s fundamental character does not change for no reason.
When dogs are brought in for a massage, I often ask the owners if their dogs lick, bite or chew themselves excessively. Dogs have a tendency to lick where they hurt, whether it is the actual site of pain or where the pain refers or radiates to. We humans know that if our neck and shoulders are very tense, we may feel numbness and tingling in the fingers. Dogs simply start licking their wrists and paws. Whenever dogs lick the soles of their paws, it is worth first checking them for splinters, infections and other local problems. If there’s nothing wrong with the paw itself, it is likely that the dog has muscle tension higher up in the limb.
The pain point can be anywhere: in a joint (osteoarthritis, perhaps), in the spine (could be spondylosis or a locked facet) or in soft tissue (might be a muscle sprain). If the pain is persistent, the colour and quality of the fur in the area may change from constant licking. Another common sign of problems is if the dog’s nails wear off inconsistently, which indicates that the dog is dragging its paws.
Wrapping your dog up in cotton wool to avoid problems is not a solution. Instead of trying to prevent anything from happening, focus on observing your dog’s gait, posture, behaviour and actions, and whenever you see any changes in any of these things, look for the underlying reason and address the problem. This way, you can catch problems early and get them remedied. Also try not to humanise dogs. They can’t pretend or do things to spite you: they can only act on their instincts. Sometimes finding the cause of a problem may require a bit of detective work, but this just makes succeeding all the more rewarding. Learn to really look at and listen to your dog.
Author Marika Kuoppala
Marika has worked as a canine and equine massage therapist since 2006. She has completed further training in O.T.E. fascial manipulation, animal reflexology, spinal manipulation and laser therapy.