Humans limp because we are in pain. The same is true for dogs. Limping is ALWAYS a sign of pain. It may be the only sign that your dog shows you. Unlike humans, dogs do not limp for sympathy or to get out of gym class.
Limping is a very common reason a dog goes to the veterinarian. That’s because the list of potential causes of limping is very long and diverse. Some causes of limping are more likely in different breeds or at different ages. For example, young otherwise healthy Pit Bulls and their mixes are more likely to tear a ligament in their knee (cranial cruciate ligament) while bone cancer is common in senior Rottweilers.
Let’s take a closer look at the potential causes of limping in dogs, plus what to do if you notice your dog limping.
Why Is My Dog Limping? 9 Potential Causes
There are many different problems that can cause limping in dogs. Anything that is painful or makes it painful to put pressure on a foot or leg can cause limping. This includes:
- Injury: broken bones, torn ligaments, dislocations, blunt trauma, sprains, strains
- Degenerative disease: arthritis, intervertebral disc calcification
- Conformation: hip dysplasia, elbow dysplasia, patellar luxation, limb malformations
- Infections: bone infection (osteomyelitis), joint infection, Lyme disease
- Cancer (neoplasia)
- Swelling: insect bites, recent vaccines, severe allergies
- Muscle loss
- Foreign material in paw pad
- Neurologic disease
Of the common causes of limping, injuries are one of the most common for young dogs and the least preventable. Dogs will be dogs: running, jumping, and playing. All it takes is a bit of uneven ground for a dog to take a wrong step and develop a muscle or joint injury. Similarly, dogs get objects caught between their paw pads, get scratches from bushes, and get stung by insects when they are exploring their environment. Each can cause limping but is easily treated and is unlikely to have long-term consequences.
On the other end of the spectrum are serious diseases that can cause limping such as cancer. Cancer can either appear as a mass or lump on the affected limb or can cause muscle loss which leads to limping. Dogs with cancer may also have overall lower energy levels and other changes to their behavior.
Dog Limping: Next Steps
Not all limping is the same, so not all limping requires the same urgency of treatment. If your dog does not put any weight on a limb when walking, that is a sign of an emergency, and you should take your dog to a veterinarian right away. The same is true if your dog cannot walk at all—that is a problem that needs to be addressed on an emergency basis.
If the limping is new and your dog puts weight on the limb while limping, it is okay to monitor them for 24 hours before seeing a veterinarian. Just like in people, dogs can step wrong and develop a minor strain that will resolve on its own by the next day.
There is no difference in urgency between a dog limping on a front leg or a back leg. However, there are conditions where the limping shifts from one leg to another. Dogs with shifting lameness should be seen by a veterinarian right away.
Intermittent or occasional dog limping can be a sign of a more chronic problem, such as arthritis. This is especially true if the limping is worse in the morning than during the day. On the other hand, limping that worsens after exercise or becomes more pronounced as the day goes on is more likely to be related to a muscle injury. Both types of limping warrant an examination by your veterinarian within 3-5 days of noticing it. Because as we know, limping is a sign of pain—and no dog deserves to be in pain.
Monitoring a Limping Dog at Home
If your veterinarian recommends monitoring dog limping at home, it is important to follow their specific guidelines for your pet. Many types of acute (sudden onset) injuries—such as broken bones, sprains, strains, blunt trauma, and infections—benefit from strict rest. Arthritis, on the other hand, can improve with frequent short walks to keep the joints lubricated.
With monitoring at home, your veterinarian will also likely recommend a period of change to your dog’s routine, such as shortened walks, no off-leash play time, no stairs, no jumping on/off furniture, and being confined to a small area like a crate or bathroom during the day. These recommendations allow minor injuries to heal while preventing major injuries from getting worse. Your veterinarian may also recommend soft bedding, elevated food and water bowls, and other changes to the environment that minimize your dog’s discomfort while healing.
Some types of problems that cause dog limping can be improved with heat or ice. For example, part of the treatment for swelling might be icing the area. It is important to wrap the ice or ice pack in a towel before applying it to your dog—never put the ice or ice pack directly on them.
Pain control can be an important component of at-home treatment for dog limping. Your veterinarian will prescribe medication for your dog. Never give over-the-counter human medications to your pet. Human pain medications including ibuprofen are toxic to dogs. Similarly, do not give one dog’s medication to another dog, as it may not be the right dose or could be dangerous when given with their other medications.
Diagnosing Dog Limping
When a dog is seen by a veterinarian for limping, the veterinarian will perform a complete physical exam as well as a more specific orthopedic exam. She will move the limbs through their range of motion to detect any reduction in mobility. She will feel all along the limbs to detect any areas of pain, swelling, or muscle loss. She may want to watch the dog walk or run as well.
Depending on the findings of the physical exam, X-rays (radiographs) may be recommended. X-rays can show fractures, dislocations, swelling, tumors, and other bone-related changes, such as arthritis. Often mild sedation is recommended for X-rays because dogs are not generally cooperative when asked to lay still, especially when they are in pain. More rarely advanced imaging, such as MRI or CT, may be required for a full diagnosis.
How to Treat a Limping Dog
The treatment for limping in dogs depends on the cause. Most of the time pain control will be part of the treatment plan. Some causes for limping in dogs, such as torn ligaments, fractures, and some dislocations, are treated with surgical repair. Less severe injuries that cause limping in dogs are generally treated with rest and pain control. Dog limping due to infection may be treated with antibiotics. Follow-up is very important to monitor progress and alter the treatment plan as needed. Dog limping caused by cancer may require amputation of the limb and/or chemotherapy as determined by an oncologist.
How to Rest a Dog at Home
The limping dog should be separated from other animals in the house and placed in a crate or small room, such as a bathroom, where they can stand up and turn around but not walk. They should have comfortable, clean, soft bedding. Dogs on prescribed rest should be taken for short, leashed walks only. They should not be allowed off-leash play time until they have been cleared for activity by their veterinarian.
Since the treatments for dog limping vary widely, so does the cost. An exam is $50-$150 and x-rays $100-400, plus $50-200 for sedation if needed. Pain control is likely in the range of $20-$100 per week, depending on the number of medications prescribed and the size of the dog. Orthopedic surgery with a board certified surgeon is in the range of $4,000-$7,000.
How to Prevent Dog Limping
While it is not entirely possible to prevent dog limping, there are things you can do to reduce your dog’s risk for painful walking. The first is that any purchased pure-bred dog should have papers certifying that both parents had their joints screened by the Orthopedic Foundation Association (OFA). This means they are less likely to have hip or elbow dysplasia and less likely to develop severe arthritis as they age. Second, do not let your dog get overweight. Excess weight puts strain on joints, which can lead to limping and arthritis. Consistent exercise for dogs is also important. Finally, have your pet seen at the first sign of limping or reduced activity so that any abnormalities can be addressed quickly, before they become a serious problem.
Limping in dogs is always a sign of pain, and should always be taken seriously.