Dear Dr. Jorden: My German shepherd came home last week and could not use his front leg.
There was no swelling, and I could touch the entire leg without any sign of pain from him. He had been out in the pasture with our horses. Now, he just drags his front leg, sometimes with his paw on the ground and sometimes just barely off the ground.
I thought he might have been kicked by the horse, but wouldn’t it be painful if something was broken?
Dear Reader: Any time there is a fracture, there should be swelling and a lot of pain.
The leg would go limp, but most of the time the leg would be held up, unless maybe the fracture was high on the leg, such as the shoulder. The lack of swelling and pain suggests another diagnosis.
From the way he is carrying his leg, it sounds as if he has injured the radial nerve in his leg. This is most often a result of some blunt trauma to the leg that damages the nerve.
Being kicked by a horse is a very common reason to have radial nerve paralysis. We also see it when the bumper of a car smacks into a dog about the size of a German shepherd.
The radial nerve courses down the front leg and curves around the upper arm bone — the humerus.
Midway down the humerus is where it lies directly over the bone. There is a little muscle there, too, but, when a hard blow, like a horse’s hoof, strikes that spot, there is no cushion for the nerve. It is pressed against the hard bone and is easily damaged.
Nerves are pretty easy to damage anyway. Just rough handling of a nerve during surgery can mean dysfunction for a week or more. More severe blows to a nerve can actually cut the nerve apart or smash it so much that the nerve will die.
The radial nerve is responsible for the muscles that bring the paw and lower leg forward when walking. Without that nerve, the leg hangs limp and drags on the ground. There is not much pain associated with radial nerve paralysis.
Time is about the only thing you have. Maybe some anti-inflammatory drugs initially might help a little, but nerves are slow to heal and even slower to start functioning, so it is a waiting game.
I have seen a few radial paralysis cases that did return to normal function. Each took weeks to get to that point. Probably more often than not, function did not return. Since there isn’t any pain, it is worth waiting it out.
At some point, you will know that there is nothing changing and the nerve will not work again. Sometimes, we amputate the limb because sores develop on the paw from dragging it around on the ground all the time.
I have also tried making a leather bootie for the leg to prevent the sores. Shaped properly, the bootie helped the paw stay more extended and more off the ground. The bootie was used whenever the dog was outside and running around and then came off during more restful times in the house.
If some function returns, it is possible that the dog could use the leather bootie as a crutch and get by a little better. Don’t give up hope. Your dog may be one of those who gets better.
Have questions about pets? Write to: PetVet; c/o The Billings Gazette; P.O. Box 36300; Billings, Mont. 59107-6300. Questions of general interest may become topics of future columns.
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