Joan Merriam: It’s all fun and games until … |

Joan Merriam: It’s all fun and games until …

Wearing a collar, a dog recovers from an injury. Pet owners need to be aware of when an injury is minor or more serious.
Doc Searls, Flickr |

So, you’re romping with your dog-pal and everything is going great — until it isn’t. You see him bolt after a squirrel, or he leaps off a rock ledge, or takes a silly tumble down a short embankment. Then you hear a sharp yelp, followed by the return of a suddenly-limping pup.

Everyone who’s ever lived in the company of dogs knows the scenario and the feeling: how bad is it? Is it just a burr caught between his toes, or is it a shredded ligament? Either way, it’s probably time to head home and do some careful investigating.

A sudden injury doesn’t always mean a trip to your vet — or worse, to the emergency clinic — but you need to know when and how to make that determination. Remember that as part of their ingrained survival instinct, most dogs are masters at hiding pain, so you have to be alert for more subtle signs that things aren’t quite right.

First, a word of caution: if you’re the least bit unsure about the seriousness of the condition, call your veterinarian right away. Letting a dangerous injury go for a few days or even a few hours could make the difference between your dog having a permanent handicap and recovering completely, or in the most dire situation, between life and death.


Acute injuries are those that flare up suddenly, or occur after an accident or something unusual the dog has done.

Auto accidents are by far the most common — and most serious — cases, and require the immediate attention of a veterinarian. Oftentimes, a dog will have internal injuries that aren’t readily apparent until it’s too late…so don’t delay.

Less life-threatening accidents like falls and twists can also cause acute injury: something like limping or favoring one leg is easy to spot, but watch for less obvious symptoms like restricted movement (especially in the head or neck), tenderness, swelling, an area that’s hot to the touch, or a change in the way your dog walks.

The best course in the case of an acute injury — unless you’re positive it’s very minor — is to call your vet to insure there’s no bone break or internal damage to tendons or ligaments. In the meantime, you can try cold treatment with an ice pack (a bag of frozen peas also works): leave it on for no more than 10-15 minutes, remove it, and re-apply it after two hours.

Other types of acute injury include serious bites — from another dog, a snake, or a large animal such as a bear — and damage from being kicked by a hoofed animal such as a deer or horse. Almost without exception, these life-threatening injuries require you see your vet as soon as possible.


Chronic injuries are those that are most often associated with conditions like arthritis, overuse or extended unaccustomed exercise, or old injuries that were left untreated. These kinds of problems tend to respond well to gentle, moist heat. Heating pads are NOT recommended for use on pets. Instead, warm a moist towel in the microwave, place it on or wrap the affected area, and put a second towel on top to hold in the warmth. Hot herbal tea compresses can also help — plus, you can drink any tea that’s left over from making the compress!

Chronic conditions such as arthritis often respond well to treatments such as acupuncture and hydrotherapy, non-prescription medications such as glucosamine and chondroitin, or prescription drugs like Rimadyl.

Massage and chiropractic care are other very helpful treatments: not only can they treat chronic conditions and minor injuries, they often also improve circulation and range of motion. While you can learn and utilize many of these techniques yourself, it’s always a good idea to take your pooch to a professional canine massage therapist or chiropractor first, so he or she can show you techniques and develop a treatment regime.


Minor injuries include things like small cuts, scrapes, a torn or broken nail, scraped paw, or even an insect bite or sting (presuming your dog doesn’t have a serious allergic reaction to the sting such as seizure, respiratory distress or unconsciousness). Wash the affected area with soap and water, then finish by drenching it with sterile contact lens or saline solution, which you can also use to flush out your dog’s eye if there’s an irritant there.

Experts recommend against using hydrogen peroxide, as it actually slows the healing process and can damage tissue.

You may choose to add antibiotic ointment, then cover the injury with sterile gauze and veterinary wrap to discourage your pup from licking, but be sure to check the wound at least twice a day for signs of infection. If the injury is an animal bite, deep puncture, serious cut, or abscess, you need to contact your vet.

So the next time your dog hurts herself — and you know it’s bound to happen some day! — stay calm and take a few minutes to assess the situation.

Call your vet if things appear serious or you need to reassure yourself. With any luck, you’ll be able to take care of the injury at home, and no one will be the worse for wear.

Joan Merriam lives in Nevada County with her Golden Retriever Joey, her Maine Coon cat Indy, and the abiding spirit of her beloved Golden Retriever Casey in whose memory this column is named. You can reach Joan at And if you’re looking for a Golden, be sure to check out Homeward Bound Golden Retriever Rescue.

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