The Top 10 Dog Injuries and How to Prevent Them

“Always expect the unexpected.”

Whoever wrote this, obviously worked at a veterinary clinic. Any veterinarian will tell you if the day diary looks quiet, it’s just the calm before the storm because a pet in serious distress doesn’t book an appointment in advance.

No one intends for an accident to happen – and yet they do. But that’s what we vets train for: to keep a cool head in a crisis to give the animal the best chance of recovery.

Of course, not all injuries are as potentially life-threatening as a road traffic accident (RTA), but from the dramatic to the inconsequential, a few simple precautions could prevent the injury from happening. Let’s take a look at 10 of the most common injuries seen by veterinarians, and how those accidents might be prevented.

In no particular order here the top 10 dog injuries I see most often:

  • Stick injuries
  • Grass seeds
  • Dog fights
  • Road traffic accidents (RTAs)
  • Choke injuries
  • Frisbee related lameness
  • Cuts and lacerations
  • Tail wag
  • Eye trauma
  • Owner-related trauma

#1: Stick Injuries

Most dogs love playing “fetch” with a stick. Unfortunately, the consequences can turn a pleasant day in the park into a trip to the emergency room. Stick injuries are common and can be dramatic.

Last year, a colleague of mine treated a dog impaled on a stick that entered under his tongue and the dog’s forward momentum forced the stick down inside the tissue of his neck.

Luckily, the owner witnessed the accident and brought the dog straight to the clinic. Looking into the dog’s mouth, there was only one inch of stick protruding from under the tongue. But an emergency anesthetic later and my colleague removed a foot-long stick lodged in the dog’s throat. Miraculously, the stick missed the jugular vein, carotid artery, and vagal nerve, and the dog made a full recovery.

Another example of stick injury was a patient of mine who presented with back pain. His clinical signs were puzzling, and so, after discussion with the owner, we decided to refer the dog.

The specialist ran an MRI and discovered a six-inch stick had migrated through the gut wall and lodged hard up against the spine where a large abscess formed. Apparently, the surgery to remove it and repair the damage had the specialist surgeon in quite a sweat. Happily, the dog made a full recovery.

So why are sticks such a problem?

Sticks have the penetrating properties of an arrow. The main hazards include the dog running onto a stick or swallowing pieces which then pierce the bowel. Treatment involves finding and removing all the wood splinters and dealing with infection. No one wants to be a killjoy, but sticks pose a preventable risk. Simply switching to an alternative such as a Kong Safe Stix, means your dog can have fun and stay safe.

After all, you wouldn’t shoot an arrow at your dog, so why would you throw a stick?

#2: Grass Awns

Grass awns are those dart-like seeds sent to plague dog owners in the summer months.

Your dog goes for a run in a meadow and comes back peppered with grass darts. You pick off what you can, but then a couple of days later your dog develops a swelling between his toes. This is the legacy of the grass awn.

When a grass awn gets caught between the toes, the sharp end pierces the skin. With normal walking movements the awn migrates into the paw, causing soreness, swelling, and infection. But paws aren’t the only problem area because an awn caught in the fur of an earflap can migrate into the ear, causing the dog to shake his head and scratch obsessively.

The typical swelling between the toes looks like a red, blister-like lump. Your veterinarian may well want to investigate which means exploring the swelling with special forceps.

Retrieving a grass seed is very satisfying–one of the perks of the profession in my book! However, sometimes it’s not easy, in which case the vet may poultice the paw to draw the awn out.

You can help your dog by meticulously checking for seeds after every walk. Don’t forget all the nooks and crannies such as between each toe, the ear flaps, armpits, and even those personal little places.

#3: Dog Fights

Dog fights are particularly distressing for dog and owner because the emotional implications echo for months after the physical wounds have healed. Unfortunately, it’s often the innocent victim who comes out worse, both in terms of injuries and psychological damage.

If your dog is attacked, even if the injuries seem superficial, get him checked by a vet. In the past year I can think of two dogs that sustained serious penetrating bites to the chest, but the owners thought there dog was merely “shaken.” Prompt treatment saved their lives.

Even when the bites are not immediately dangerous, they do need attention. The mouth is not sterile and the bite inoculates bacteria beneath the skin, which makes infection a likely complication.

The attending veterinarian will most likely clip hair so as to assess the injuries and clean them. Prompt washing out of wounds with saline or diluted disinfectant reduces the risk of infection, and antibiotics are often required. Dog bites are also painful, so pain relieving medications also aid recovery.

As to avoiding or preventing fights, learn to read canine body language. Be alert for the body posture of dogs’ intent on aggression, and steer clear. And when this isn’t possible, and a dog attacks, never try to separate the dogs with your hands – find something such as a broom or stick to fend the aggressor off.

#4: Road Traffic Accidents (RTAs)

It’s Monday morning (why do these things always happen on a Monday?), and I was already heading into work when my phone went. Apparently not one dog, but two, had arrived after an RTA and were both in a serious condition.

These two Bichons belonged to the same owner. She had opened the front door to the postman and both dogs had dashed out onto the road… The owner was distraught.

But accidents happen; unfortunately, where cars are concerned, it may not end well for the dog. However, I can’t think of many RTAs where the dog was on a leash, so keeping your dog on a leash near traffic has to cut the risk.

As for treating RTAs: well this is a two-stage procedure… first to stabilize the patient, and second to repair the injuries.

After an accident, shock can be a killer even if the injuries seem superficial. Pain, fear, internal injuries, and blood loss all contribute to shock, which drops the blood pressure and cause organ failure. Most veterinarians take the risk of shock seriously and use aggressive intravenous fluids and pain relief to stabilize the patient.

Only once the initial shock is over and the patient stable, can we start to stitch wounds, repair broken bones, and put the patient on the long road to recovery.

(What happened to those Bichons? Sadly, only one of the dogs made it and he lost a limb. So please take care, even with simple things like opening the front door.)

#5: Choke Injuries

Choke injuries are interesting for veterinarians (perhaps less so for the poor dog) because the symptoms aren’t always what a lay person might expect. A dog that pulls on his collar may choke, but it can also induce a faint or even a bizarre form of pneumonia.

For example, a patient of mine regularly fainted when she pulled on her collar. Whilst another developed “neurogenic” (nerve induced) pneumonia after a teenager pulled on the dog’s collar during an over-exuberant game.

This happens because the longest nerve in the body, the vagus, runs down the left side of the neck. Pressure on this nerve over stimulates this nerve (a bit like the Vulcan death grip!), which then tells the heart to slow right down….and the dog faints. Alternatively, pressure on this nerve may cause the lungs to flood with fluid – hence the neurogenic pneumonia. (Scientists are uncertain of the mechanics of this process.)

Prevention is simple – throw away the choke chain and use a properly fitted collar or better still a harness.

#6: Frisbee Related Lameness

I’ve dedicated this section to the Frisbee, but in truth, any athletic, jumping and twisting activity can induce this form of lameness – damage to the cruciate ligament in the knee.

The cruciate ligament does what it says on the label: It forms a cross inside the knee joint to stop the shin bone sliding over the thigh bone. However, extreme force on the knee causes this ligament to stretch or snap. The dog then pulls up extremely lame, and stands with a classic “toe tipping” pose.

Some dogs are lucky, and the stretched ligament heals with rest and pain relief. Others continue to be lame and then there’s a difficult decision ahead about whether to operate, and the pros and cons of the different types of surgery.

Of course you want to have fun with your dog, and in truth a cruciate may “pop” with a simple activity such as chasing a bird in the yard. You can’t wrap your pet in cotton wool, and he does need to be active. But be sensible. When he’s tired, stop the rough play because he’s more likely to land awkwardly and hurt himself.

#7: Cuts and Lacerations

Any dog leading an active life picks up a cut from time to time, be it a cut pad from glass on the path or a laceration from barbed wire. Some breeds have tough skins, but others, such as greyhounds and whippets, have skin like tissue paper that tears when they so much as look at a rose bush.

Cuts need cleaning and examining by your veterinarian to decide if they need stitching. Depending on the depth and location of the cut, this may be done under sedation with local anesthetic. More serious injuries need an anesthetic for a full assessment, to wash out contamination, then clean and suture the wound.

#8: Tail Wag Injuries

If you’re scratching your head over this one, a tail wag injury most commonly occurs in the Labrador. It happens when that windmill wag repeatedly bashes against a wall. If the wall is abrasive, such as brick, enough wags and the tail tip gets beaten to a pulp.

Tail wag injuries can be difficult to treat. You need to be cunning about the type of dressing used, because these dogs have such active tails they tend to wag the bandage off. But leave the tail uncovered and the injury gets worse. The majority do settle with a bit of nifty bandaging, a cone-of-shame to stop the dog swallowing the dressing (these are Labradors after all), and antibiotics against secondary infections.

Prevention includes lining any brick wall passageways with carpet, so the surface is less abrasive. Early intervention is essential, because a neglected tail wag injury can sometimes be beyond repair and tail tip amputation becomes necessary.

#9: Eye Trauma

These are the dogs that are so focused on finding the ball that they fail to see the thorn bush. Twigs that flick into a dog’s eye and scratches from undergrowth are common. Fortunately, dogs do have an added protection in the third eyelid (that skin that sits in the inner corner of the dog’s eye). Its job is to pop across the eye to shield it from trauma, and nine times out of ten it does a good job.

Most commonly the eye is sore, or the eyelids swollen. Usually topical antibiotics and pain relieving medications are sufficient to settle things down. However, a dog with a deep laceration to the front of the eye (cornea) may require a delicate surgical repair.

Get any eye injury checked by your vet. Even minor problems can be irritating, the dog may rub at the eye, and change a small problem into a big one – so settle the discomfort early to save worry later on.

#10: Owner Related Injuries

Now before writing about owner related injuries, rest assured this is something we’ve all done, including me. I too have experienced the sickening sensation of a small furry body (in my case, my own cat’s 5-week old kitten) under my foot when I stepped on him. (Miraculously he was fine, but I’ve no idea how.) Pets have a habit of dashing around and getting under our feet so tread injuries and accidental kicks are common.

Perhaps the worst owner induced injury I’ve treated was a Shih Tzu who strayed behind his owner as he practiced his golf swing in the yard. Yep. You guessed it. On the back swing the dog’s head was hit like a golf ball. This poor chap was concussed and had a bad headache for a couple of days, but lived to tell the tale.

Which just goes to show (I lesson for me also) is you need to know where your pets are at all times and anticipate their erratic movements. After all, they don’t play a mental game of consequences and follow an interesting smell without thought for hidden danger.

So there we have it: Ten of the common injuries seen by veterinarians. Which, if any, has your pet experienced?