Sudden Lameness in a Working Dog: Searching for the Cause

The sudden onset of lameness in a working dog is surely enough to make a canine handler’s heart skip a beat. I know this because it happened to us today with 7 year old Disaster SearchDog Ben after a morning of agility, directional training, and rubble search. He just turned 7, and Eric and I work hard to keep him fit to avoid injury. 

We finished our morning with a short, two person search on a small rubble pile. Ben performed his usual acrobatics on the pile, leaping around fearlessly, and flawlessly. He was paid promptly with a few tugs and he did his victory lap with the toy on the way back to the truck. That’s when I noticed a very slight lameness of the left hind leg.

I performed a thorough musculoskeletal evaluation. I palpated each joint, putting them all through their full range of motion. I squeezed every toenail, looking for a cracked one (which is Ben’s specialty), and looked in between each toe, looking for a puncture (above is the photo of his paw). I probed each muscle belly in the affected limb, looking for a clue. No signs of pain, heat, or swelling, but he was still having an intermittent, mild decrease in weight bearing on his left hind leg (we’d call this a grade 0-1 out of 4 lameness).

Getting ready to pass it off as a soft tissue strain, I noticed him licking his left hind foot (his usual M.O. when he’s cracked a nail) and so I investigated further. Squeezing each toenail, spreading the toes….again. Then, there it was…a superficial abrasion of the metacarpal pad, the weight bearing, and shock absorbing portion of the hind limb. 

These abrasions are often seen as small flaps of paw pad tissue, and are often difficult to identify when the surface area of the abrasion is very small, and the small flap is still covering the wound. More severe abrasions can involve the entire paw pad, several paw pads, or multiple limbs. The rough, superficial tissue of the paw pad is a very specialized material designed to protect the sensitive and fragile epidermis that lies underneath. When the protective pad is worn away, the epidermis is exposed, causing discomfort when bearing weight.

The good news is, with superficial abrasions like this, the treatment is to keep it clean, and rest while it heals (and, in case you didn’t know…rest is a working canine team’s nemesis). A more severe abrasion (such as when the entire epidermis is abraded) might require more intensive veterinary care which may include bandaging, foot soaks, or even surgical debridement. Of course, always seek veterinary advice when treating things like this. 

Prevention? Well, That can be hard for a working dog. In my experience, these abrasions often happen after intense tugging, or retrieving on rough surfaces, such as asphalt, or gravel. The repetitive skidding of the paw pad against the ground causes loss of the superficial protective tissues. Limiting these activities when possible may help to prevent injuries like this.

Thanks for reading. Now….. off to tell Ben about the prescribed REST. Wish me luck!