Dog Muscle Spasms: Causes and How to Help

Dog Muscle Spasms: Causes and How to Help

If you’ve ever had a muscle spasm, you know how painful these unpredictable afflictions can be. One minute, you’re relaxing on the couch or enjoying your regular activities. The next minute, your muscle is locked in a painful contraction, rendering you both unwilling and unable to move. 

Can dogs have muscle spasms? Yes, they can. Fortunately, painful muscle spasms do not seem to be very common in dogs. Still, on the off chance your pup suffers a muscle spasm, you’re going to want to know all about them…including what causes them and how you can help your dog cope with muscle spasms. 

What Are Dog Muscle Spasms?

In both humans and dogs, the term “muscle spasm” refers to a spontaneous, uncontrolled contraction of a muscle. 

Muscle contractions are a standard part of everyday life. Without them, your dog could not walk, run, or do almost anything. Usually, your dog is in control of their skeletal muscles, so the muscles work in normal, predictable ways. However, during a muscle spasm, powerful muscle contractions occur outside of your dog’s control.

And, just like the muscle spasms that plague people, muscle spasms in dogs can be very painful. Therefore, it’s worth taking canine muscle spasms seriously, because they can significantly impact your dog’s quality of life. 

Additionally, while muscle spasms themselves are rarely serious or fatal, the underlying conditions that cause them can be.  

What Causes Muscle Spasms in Dogs?

Muscle spasms have two potential causes. In some cases, a nerve fires abnormally, signaling the muscle to contract. In other cases, muscle spasms can be caused by abnormally excitable muscle cells. 

That means any condition that affects the nerves or the muscles can potentially cause muscle spasms. In dogs, that list of conditions includes: 

  • Intervertebral disk disease or other diseases affecting the spine 
  • Trauma that causes nerve irritation/entrapment
  • Nerve tumor
  • Neuromuscular disease
  • Hypercalcemia 
  • Electrolyte imbalances
  • Dehydration
  • Overexertion 
  • Toxins
  • Tetanus
  • Canine distemper virus 
  • Rabies 

Because muscle spasms have many different underlying causes, it’s difficult to predict an individual dog’s risk of experiencing a muscle spasm. Some causes of muscle spasms have an underlying genetic component and tend to affect certain breeds. Intervertebral disk disease, for example, is common in Dachshunds. Other underlying causes, like trauma, infectious diseases, and dehydration/overexertion, are relatively unpredictable and can affect any breed of dog. 

Dog Muscle Spasm Symptoms

Muscle spasms can affect any muscle in your dog’s body. However, they most commonly occur in the neck, legs, and muscles that run along both sides of a dog’s back. So symptoms are often concentrated in one or more of these areas.

Signs of muscle spasms include: 

  • Pain
  • Limping
  • Visible muscle stiffness or trembling
  • Reluctance to move the affected body part
  • Irritability

It’s important to note that muscle spasms may be short-lived or they may persist for a longer period of time. Some symptoms may be obvious. For instance, if your dog is mid-spasm, you might notice obvious stiffness, pain, and trembling at the site of the muscle spasm.

However, some signs of a muscle spasm can be subtle and may persist long after the spasm has ended. For example, dogs with muscle spasms in their neck may only show a reluctance to eat from their food bowl, because the pain makes it more difficult to lower their heads.

Dog Muscle Spasms vs. Seizures

Pet parents should know that sometimes seizures in dogs can look a lot like muscle spasms. It’s important to know how to differentiate these conditions because seizures typically require more urgent treatment than muscle spasms. 

The difference between a muscle spasm and a generalized seizure is easier to recognize. That’s because, in addition to abnormal muscle movements, seizing dogs also tend to lose consciousness, lose control of their bladder and bowel, and act disoriented post-seizure. 

However, some dogs have partial seizures, which can be harder to recognize. During a partial seizure, a dog may remain conscious and only experience abnormal muscle movements in one part of their body. 

Distinguishing partial seizures from muscle spasms can be challenging, and will likely require the help of your veterinarian. So it’s best to consult your veterinarian if you have any concerns about your dog’s symptoms.

Diagnosing Dog Muscle Spasms

If you suspect your dog may be experiencing muscle spasms, a thorough veterinary exam is required to evaluate your dog’s symptoms and correctly diagnose the condition. An accurate diagnosis is the first step in determining the most effective treatment. 

Your veterinarian will begin by collecting your dog’s medical history. They will ask you questions about your dog’s overall health, as well as specific questions about your dog’s muscle spasms and symptoms. For example, when do the muscle spasms occur, how frequently, and have you noticed any factors that appear to trigger the muscle spasms? 

Be prepared to describe your dog’s muscle spasms and, if possible, to show your vet a video of the symptoms causing you concern.

Next, your veterinarian will perform a thorough physical exam. Many muscle spasms are caused by an irritated nerve, and this irritation may be associated with an injury. Your veterinarian will carefully palpate your dog’s spine and the parts of their body where muscle spasms have occurred to identify abnormalities that may cause nerve damage. 

If the cause of your dog’s muscle spasm isn’t apparent upon exam, your veterinarian may recommend further diagnostics. Blood tests can identify hypercalcemia and electrolyte imbalances that may contribute to muscle spasms, while X-ray imaging can be used to look for injuries that may affect the spine. 

In some cases, your veterinarian may refer you to a specialist for further testing. For example, veterinary neurologists often perform an electromyogram (EMG) or nerve conduction study to better characterize neuromuscular disease.

Dog Muscle Spasms Treatment

Not all muscle spasms require treatment. If your dog has an isolated, one-time muscle spasm that resolves quickly and doesn’t recur, your veterinarian may forgo treatment. However, any dog with recurrent muscle spasms should receive veterinary care.

Natural Remedies for Muscle Spasms in Dogs

The only home treatment that may help some muscle spasms is rest. If your dog has a muscle spasm and it resolves on its own, it’s reasonable to monitor your dog at home. Limit your dog’s activity to allow time for any swelling or inflammation to resolve, then wait to see if the problem recurs. If your dog’s muscle spasms persist for more than a day, it’s time to seek veterinary care. 

Do not give any over-the-counter medications to your dog. Over-the-counter pain medications designed for humans can cause serious harm to dogs. 

Veterinary Treatments for Muscle Spasms in Dogs

The treatment of muscle spasms usually depends on their underlying cause. For example, if your dog’s muscle spasms are caused by intervertebral disk disease, your veterinarian will likely prescribe anti-inflammatory medication and strict rest to address the inflammation in your dog’s spine. If your dog’s muscle spasms are caused by hypercalcemia, your veterinarian will need to find and treat the underlying cause of the hypercalcemia. 

Muscle relaxants also play a role in the treatment of muscle spasms. Methocarbamol is a commonly used muscle relaxant in dogs. Methocarmabol is often combined with other treatments, which are intended to address the underlying cause of your dog’s muscle spasms. 

Your veterinarian may also prescribe pain medication to treat the pain that often accompanies muscle spasms. 

General Cost to Treat Dog Muscle Spasms 

The cost to treat muscle spasms will depend on their underlying cause. When muscle spasms are caused by an injury or inflammation, a physical exam and anti-inflammatory medication may cost just $100 – 200. If your dog’s muscle spasms are caused by hypercalcemia associated with malignant cancer, however, the cost of diagnostics and cancer treatment may reach several thousand dollars.

After performing a thorough physical exam, the veterinarian will give you an estimated cost for diagnosing and treating your dog’s muscle spasms. 

How to Prevent Muscle Spasms in Dogs

Most muscle spasms cannot be prevented. However, you can reduce your dog’s risk by ensuring that they eat a well-balanced diet. Keep your dog at a healthy weight to reduce their risk of injury, especially if your dog is a breed that is prone to intervertebral disk disease.

While there is no way to prevent all canine muscle spasms, prompt veterinary care can allow for the timely treatment of conditions that cause muscle spasms. 

Related Conditions

  • Intervertebral disk disease
  • Hypercalcemia
  • Tetanus
  • Canine distemper virus
  • Rabies

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