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Cat Limping: 14 Reasons Why It Happens

Cat lifting paw
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Severity: i Medium - High
Life stage: All

Cats are known to hide their pain, but if you see a cat limping, that is an obvious sign that they are in a lot of pain—enough pain that they can’t hide it. If you’ve ever had this happen to your cat, then you’ve likely asked yourself (or Googled), why is my cat limping

In this article, we’ll take an in-depth look at cat limping, including potential causes of lameness in cats, what to do if your cat is limping, and how to prevent the problem, if possible. 

Why Is My Cat Limping?

Cat lying down on doormat

There are many potential causes of limping in cats. A bone, muscle, tendon, or ligament injury is the most obvious reason that a cat is limping.

Infections from bite wounds are also a very common reason why cats limp. When cats fight, they can leave behind deep puncture wounds caused by bites. These wounds become infected and abscess, causing inflammation, pain, swelling, and lameness in cats, especially outdoor cats that like to fight. Sometimes, you may see or feel the swelling, and other times, you may not notice it. 

Other reasons that a cat may limp include:

Arthritis that causes joint pain (worse in obese cats); you may not see your cat limping but you may notice your cat jumping less, grooming less, sleeping more, playing less, etc.

Cancer in the bone or nerves that causes pain; this can affect any leg

Toe pain from a torn toe nail, foreign body, burned/injured toe pads, or phantom pain from a declawing surgery; cats may also lick their paws a lot or have increased aggression due to chronic pain from declawing

Uncontrolled diabetes mellitus that causes cats to have an abnormal, dropped stance in their back legs (called down in the hocks)

Hip dysplasia that causes pain or dysfunction in the hip joints of a cat’s back legs

Bone infection that causes bone pain in any leg

Bone fractures that healed abnormally, causing abnormal gaits in cats

Tick bite paralysis caused by a bite from certain species of female ticks

Spinal disc disease that causes a cat to drag their legs or be unable to get up

Pinched nerve that usually causes neck and shoulder pain and limping in front legs

Saddle thrombus/aortic thromboembolic disease caused by heart disease that causes a blood clot to block blood flow to the rear legs, resulting in rear leg lameness

Vaccine reaction that causes pain, swelling, and limping after the injection is given 

What to Do If Your Cat Is Limping

It can be tempting to take the wait-and-see approach if you notice your cat limping. However, some conditions are more serious than others and require prompt veterinary attention. You might be asking yourself, what should I do if my cat is limping but acting normal? What about a cat limping all of a sudden or a limp that comes and goes? Here is a general guide: 

Cat Limping SignsWhen to See a Vet
Your cat limps once and then never has another problemYour cat is likely fine and doesn’t need to see a vet or get treatment
Your cat is limping all of a sudden and it doesn’t improveTake your cat to the vet as soon as possible
Your cat is limping and you notice injuries, bite wounds, or swellingTake your cat to the vet the same day
Your cat is unable to walk or is dragging their hind limbTake your cat to the vet the same day
Your cat is limping off and onTake your cat to the vet as soon as possible
Your cat is limping and acting sick (not eating, hiding, vomiting, diarrhea, low energy) Take your cat to the vet the same day
Your cat is limping and has already been diagnosed with the cause of the limpingCall your vet the same day for recommendations—they may be able to help you over the phone

Pay special attention to when the limping occurs (e.g., after sleeping, running, playing, etc.) and how long the cat has been limping—your vet will want this information. 

If your vet advises you to monitor your cat’s limping at home, here are some steps you can take to make your cat more comfortable:

  • Put all food, water, bedding, and toys on the ground level
  • Place a ramp for your cat to walk up
  • If you have been tasked with keeping your cat “quiet,” keep your cat in a small bathroom or large dog crate to limit movement
  • If you have started treatment but still notice your cat limping, call your vet

It is very important to NOT give your cat any human over-the-counter or prescription pain meds. This is especially important in regards to ibuprofen or acetaminophen—these medications are extremely toxic to cats and should never be given to a cat. 

Diagnosing Cat Limping

Veterinarians prep cat for X-rays

A veterinarian will utilize a physical examination, an oral history from you, and various tests to diagnose cat limping. A physical examination is almost always necessary and depending on the cause of limping, may be all that is required to diagnose the problem. Abscesses, for example, can be diagnosed with a physical examination.

Common tests a veterinarian may run for a limping cat include:

  • Radiographs (X-rays) to look at bone and muscle
  • Blood work to rule out problems like diabetes
  • MRI or CT scan if the cause of limping isn’t readily apparent

How to Treat a Limping Cat

Cat with bandage on leg

Almost all limping cats will be given pain medication but beyond that, how lameness in cats is treated depends on the underlying cause. Here are some examples:

  • Arthritis is treated with weight loss if needed and pain medication. Joint supplements, laser therapy, acupuncture, and omega-3 fatty acids, as well as other adjunct treatments, are also available
  • Abscesses are lanced by a veterinarian and then treated with antibiotics and pain medications
  • Cancer requires surgery +/- radiation therapy
  • Paw injuries are treated appropriately
  • Bone infections receive antibiotics
  • Spinal and nerve disease is treated with surgery, anti-inflammatories, and cage rest
  • Saddle thrombus is treated with pain medication, cage rest, blood thinners, and time

Your veterinarian will tailor your cat’s treatment to their specific condition and treat it appropriately. 

How to Prevent Cat Limping

Cat using scratching post

While you can’t prevent all causes of cat limping, there are several things you can do as a pet parent to minimize your cat’s risk, such as:

  • Keep your cat indoors to avoid abscesses and injuries
  • Keep your cat at a healthy weight to reduce problems with arthritis
  • Have your cat checked by a veterinarian yearly to catch any problems early
  • Give your cat omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil
  • Do not declaw your cat
  • Give your cat adequate scratching surfaces
  • Keep your cat active with 3-4 daily play sessions every day

Related Conditions

  • Abscesses
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Cancer
  • Injuries
  • Diabetes mellitus
  • Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy
  • Saddle thrombus