Limping, also referred to as lameness, is one of the most common reasons that dogs need to visit the vet. With four paws and boundless energy, dogs occasionally hurt themselves. However, injuries aren’t the only reason your dog might be limping. In fact, many things can cause lameness, from bone issues, to problems with the tissues that connect, support or help move joints, such as the muscles, tendons and ligaments—and even problems with the nerves. Examples of things that can cause dogs to limp include certain diseases, infection, growth problems, and sometimes cancer.
Whether your dog is suddenly limping, or has been having issues with the way he walks off and on for a few weeks, here’s how to determine whether a veterinary visit is necessary and what you can do to help your limping dog.
What Is Lameness in Dogs?
Limping or lameness is the abnormal walk (gait) that occurs when a dog puts less weight on one or more paws. It can be really obvious, like a dog holding up or refusing to stand on his paw, or it can be very subtle and hard to spot, like when a dog takes shorter strides to ease arthritic joints. One thing is clear, though: Limping in dogs is almost always an attempt to reduce pain, and that’s definitely worth taking seriously. It’s important for your dog to be seen or treated by a veterinarian to address the root cause of the pain.
Lameness in dogs can come on suddenly, such as when they get something stuck between their foot pads, but can also be a sign of more serious events, such as a sprain or a broken bone. In other cases, it can come on gradually, as with dogs who develop osteoarthritis (“arthritis”). It can occur in any leg and may occur in more than one leg at the same time. You may notice that your dog has been sitting or lying differently or may even hide or pull the leg away if someone gets close. Sometimes it is possible to see changes in the way the leg looks, such as an area of redness, some swelling, or just a general feeling that it doesn’t look the same shape (comparing how it looks to the opposite leg can be useful).
Why Is My Dog Limping?
There are many reasons your dog may be limping. Getting to the bottom of what’s bothering your dog can be a challenge, but your veterinarian can help you determine the cause. Here are some of the most common causes of limping in dogs:
Osteoarthritis is the most common joint disease in dogs, affecting an estimated 25 percent of dogs (1). Joint abnormalities (such as the dysplasias described above) are one of the most common causes, therefore the disease often starts at a young age. It can also be caused by joint injuries, which can occur at any age. Risk factors that increase a dog’s likelihood of developing clinical signs of osteoarthritis include being overweight, too much or too little exercise, slippery floors, or anything that increases strain and stresses on a dog’s joints. It’s a progressive disease, which means the signs get worse over time, so it’s important to watch out for it and spot it early. Early signs may include slowly or awkwardly sitting or lying down, holding a leg slightly out to one side, enjoying walks but slowing down sooner, or sometimes hesitating to jump or climb stairs. The signs may be inconsistent, but in general start subtly and gradually worsen over time. By the time your dog is limping, arthritis is usually quite severe, so don’t wait for a limp to get him checked out at your veterinary clinic.
Another common cause of limping in dogs is a sprain or torn ligament. A sprain is when the connective tissue that connects one bone to another (ligament) stretches or tears. Young, active and energetic dogs tearing around are at risk. Certain breeds with developmental abnormalities (see “dysplasia” section), weekend warriors, and overweight or obese dogs may also be more likely to experience sprains. The most common sprain is the cranial cruciate ligament (sometimes called an “anterior” cruciate ligament). This ligament sits inside the knee and stops the thigh bone from sliding forward and off the shin bone when a dog bears weight on it. Dogs can either fully tear or partially tear this ligament, which can cause them to start limping suddenly, and often severely.
A cruciate tear usually occurs in medium- to large-breed dogs, especially those who are overweight. The ligament can tear during a vigorous play session, although sometimes even jumping off the sofa is enough to snap it. Dogs may also start limping after running. With this sort of injury, dogs tend to go very lame immediately, rarely putting pressure on the foot, or “toe touching” at the most. Often, they don’t mind people feeling the leg or pulling it about, which can confuse and mislead pet parents, who may expect the injury to feel tender. This type of injury needs to be managed carefully, so pet parents should visit the veterinarian as soon as possible if their dog shows signs of cruciate injury.
The kneecap (patella) sits in a groove at the end of the thigh bone and is held in place by the supportive structures that run between the thigh muscle and shin. The kneecap is supposed to slide back and forth when the knee bends. In certain dog breeds, the groove is too shallow and the kneecap is only held loosely in place, so it occasionally slips out to one side, stopping the knee from bending correctly. This is referred to as dislocation or “luxation.” Kneecap dislocation (patella luxation) usually affects small dogs and is thought to be a genetic problem.
Many dogs that are affected will appear to have a limp that comes and goes. They may be fine most of the time, but will suddenly switch to hopping on one back leg. A few seconds later, they’ll be back to moving as normal. The knee is rarely painful or swollen, so this is a lameness that often goes ignored by pet parents. In more severe cases, some dogs will be carrying the leg most of the time. Getting it fixed at a young age may reduce damage to joint structures and risk of osteoarthritis in the affected knee. Whether your dog should undergo surgery depends on severity and other factors, so speak to your veterinarian, who can advise on the best approach.
Hip, Elbow or Shoulder Dysplasia
Dysplasia means “abnormal growth,” and in this case refers to the fact that, in some dogs, the joint doesn’t form properly when the dog is growing. Joints most commonly affected include the hip, elbow, and shoulder, but dysplasia can affect any joint. While the primary cause is hereditary, factors such as excessive growth rate, type of exercise, being overweight, and type of nutrition can increase the dog’s likelihood of developing a clinical problem. Dysplasia is most commonly diagnosed in dogs that are 6 to 18 months. Often large-breed dogs are affected, but it can affect dogs of any size. Reputable, well-respected breeders of higher risk breeds usually have their dogs scored (hip, elbow, etc.) to make sure that they are only breeding from the healthiest dogs. It is good to know the family dysplasia scores before getting a puppy, but it’s not always possible, such as when the dog is a rescue. If your dog is a breed that has a higher risk of dysplasia, your veterinarian can recommend an exercise and growth plan. Dysplasias are one of the most common causes of osteoarthritis. How quickly signs begin will vary by individual dog. Early signs to watch out for include a strange sitting posture, shortened length of stride, and hip swaying.
Cuts, Sores and Foreign Objects
For the majority of young, healthy dogs who have a limp, some sort of paw or foot injury, possibly with infection following, is often the reason. Although the pads on dogs’ feet are thick, they’re not invincible. It’s possible for dogs to cut their feet on foreign objects like discarded glass or sharp pieces of metal just about anywhere. These objects can also get stuck or embedded in your dog’s feet. Coming to a sudden stop on asphalt can cause abrasions, walking on very hot concrete or asphalt can present a burn hazard, and walking on frozen surfaces can increase your dog’s risk of frostbite. Dogs who run through grass and woods are prone to getting grass seeds, thorns, or sticks between their pads and under their skin. Whatever the case, when skin is damaged, it’s possible for infection to follow.
Bleeding is often the first sign of such an injury, but sometimes limping is the only red flag to alert pet parents that something is amiss. Typically, the limp affects just one foot, although it’s possible for an unlucky dog to injure multiple feet at once. This type of limp also comes on suddenly and tends to get a little worse as inflammation and possible infection set in. Affected dogs will often lick at the area repeatedly. Even if you don’t see them licking, you may notice a wet foot or pink-orange-brown saliva staining. If your dog is suddenly limping and licking his paw, it’s likely that a foreign body, cut, or abrasion is to blame. You might be able to see the injury or foreign body itself or other signs, such as redness, swelling, a blister, or discharge (e.g., clear, pus, blood). Give your veterinary clinic a call so they can advise you on next steps, such as how to keep the wound clean or whether they will need to hunt for a foreign object or prescribe antibiotics. If your dog is not agreeable to having his leg examined, only view it from a distance and let your veterinarian investigate further.
Of course, broken and fractured bones can also cause a noticeable limp. There is usually an obvious reason for the fracture, such as falling, a road traffic accident, or other traumatic injury. Affected dogs will often not bear any weight on the injured leg at all. Anybody who has broken a bone before knows that it’s an extremely painful experience. If you suspect a break or fracture, please take your pet to an emergency veterinarian immediately.
However, be aware that not all fractures are so obvious. A limp may not be as noticeable in dogs with fractured toes or small stress fractures when compared to a dog with a fully broken bone.
It’s not uncommon for a fracture to be found a week after the initial injury, only after a subtle limp persists. Usually the area will be painful when it is touched and pressed. Your veterinarian will need to take an X-ray to confirm the diagnosis.
Although thankfully less common than the other causes discussed, bone cancer is another possible reason for limping—one that’s important not to ignore. Some types of cancer are extremely painful, and affected dogs will get progressively worse until they can’t bear any weight at all. Sometimes, affected dogs go from a mild limp to completely lame all of a sudden. This is usually because the destroyed bone tissue is so weak that it’s prone to breaking. One minute they’ll be jumping from the sofa, and the next they’ll be unable to stand. Pet parents may also see a bony swelling at the site of the tumor or notice their pet licking at the area more than usual. Front legs or back legs can be affected, with the shoulder, wrist, and knee being common locations for this sort of tumor. Your veterinarian will discuss your pet’s options if bone cancer is determined to be the cause of your dog’s limping.
What to Do if Your Dog Is Limping
If you notice your dog has a limp, it can be helpful to ask other people in contact with the dog if they have also noticed it and if so, when. Has it come on suddenly, or has it been steadily getting worse and you’re only now noticing it? You should also assess the severity of the limp: Is your dog unable to bear weight on the limb, or is it more of a subtle change in the way he’s walking? Next, consider your dog’s behavior: Is he still happy, bright, and playful? Or is he under the weather, depressed, lethargic, or licking at the area? Finally, as long as your dog is amenable, have a look at the limb: Is it swollen or bleeding? Can you identify where it is sore?
If you have identified an easily solved problem, such as a small object between the paw pads, that is easy to remove and has not caused any skin damage, a visit to the veterinarian might not be required. However, make sure the area is clean and check it regularly to make sure that there really is no problem (such as an infection).
It might not be necessary to take your dog to the clinic immediately if:
- Your dog is only slightly lame and the change has only been seen within the last 24 hours;
- Your dog is young, fit, and active with normal behavior, including eating and drinking normally;
- Your dog isn’t paying attention to the limb by licking or chewing it;
- And you can’t see any sign of a problem when you examine the limb.
Your veterinarian is the best resource when it comes to your dog’s health, so never hesitate to call your veterinary office for advice. Some veterinarians will even be able to check your dog using a video call to assess whether he needs to be seen.
Just like us, dogs can tweak a muscle or slightly twist a joint when playing or exercising, so your veterinarian may recommend resting your dog for 24 hours. That means preventing jumping and playing as much as possible. You should also avoid long walks—just take your dog out on a leash to go to the bathroom. If you do not see an improvement with rest, then a vet visit is required.
Don’t delay contacting your veterinarian if:
- Your dog’s pain has been gradually worsening;
- Your dog’s limp is severe and he is unable to bear weight;
- Your dog is licking, chewing, or otherwise bothering his foot;
- You can see a wound or sore.
Seeing the veterinarian is essential to get proper diagnosis or treatment. Don’t try to bandage or splint any wounds unless your veterinarian recommends you do so. You should also never give your dog aspirin or ibuprofen at home, as many human over-the-counter (OTC) medications are dangerous to dogs. The only exception is if your veterinarian specifically advises you to do so, because she believes it would be beneficial under your dog’s specific circumstances and safe with your dog’s history. In this scenario, your veterinarian will tell you exactly what to give and when.
Dog Limping: Diagnosis
When you take your limping dog to the veterinarian, the first thing she will do is take a thorough history. This involves asking questions to find out when you noticed the limp, whether the limp has been getting worse or better over time, and whether a known injury occurred. Your veterinarian will also want to know about your dog’s general health, including appetite and thirst and activity levels. She might also ask other questions to help her detective work, such as, “Has your dog had any previous joint injuries, broken bones, grass seed removals, etc. If so, when did they occur?” The discussion may continue throughout your dog’s physical exam. Don’t worry if your veterinarian doesn’t immediately hone in on where you think the problem is; she needs to check that everything else is OK and that your dog is generally healthy. If she went straight to the painful spot, your dog would be unlikely to let her examine anything else properly! Your veterinarian will probably feel, bend, poke, and prod the legs, bones, muscles, and pads of all four legs to ensure she doesn’t miss anything. You or a member of the clinic staff might be asked to walk, trot, or run your dog so that your veterinarian can see how the dog is moving.
Sometimes, the source of the limp is obvious—a cut or suspected grass seed is often quickly found on your dog’s clinical exam, and the veterinarian can go about treating the problem. Sometimes, the clues come from a combination of your dog’s medical history, age, breed, and the physical exam. Your veterinarian might use intuitive judgment or undertake further tests to be sure. Other times, the physical exam does not provide enough information. If your dog has some pain but no external wound and no signs of anything more severe, your veterinarian might use her professional judgement to prescribe pain relief and rest as a trial treatment for a strained muscle or similar. Alternatively, she might recommend further tests to help get to the bottom of the problem, such as X-rays.
If your veterinarian suspects osteoarthritis, she might ask you to complete a questionnaire that has been specially developed to help evaluate dogs with this condition. An example is LOAD (Liverpool Osteoarthritis in Dogs Index). The LOAD questionnaire asks questions about how your dog is moving and helps to build a picture of how severe the changes caused by OA are.
Repeating the questionnaire is a good way of assessing whether treatment is helping or whether your dog is deteriorating.
Dog Limping: Treatment
Depending on the cause of your dog’s limp, there are a number of possible treatments. Since limping dogs are usually in pain, it’s likely that your veterinarian will prescribe pain relief for your dog, such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). Additional pain relief may be required along with NSAIDs if your dog’s pain is severe, or on its own if NSAIDs are not appropriate for your dog. Rest and/or changes to your dog’s usual exercise routine may also be advised. Your veterinarian can recommend other ways of reducing pain and making it easier for your dog to get around. Some causes—such as a grass seed, cruciate ligament injury, patella luxation, or broken bones—may require surgery to treat the cause of the limp.
Osteoarthritis cannot be cured, but it can be managed with treatment. Some pet owners will pick up on early signs, but these signs can be subtle and easy to miss. Dogs with early osteoarthritis may not limp. By the time limping occurs, dogs generally have moderate to severe osteoarthritis. Severe osteoarthritis is more difficult to manage, so it’s better to catch it early. You and your veterinarian can work together to come up with the right treatment plan for your dog. Along with pain medications, such as NSAIDs, the plan might include changing your dog’s exercise program, weight loss/management, and/or joint supplements—it depends on what is most appropriate for your dog. Many other options might be discussed or recommended, ranging from hydrotherapy and acupuncture to laser therapy and stem cell therapies. Your veterinarian will be able to talk you through the pros and cons of each type of therapy for your dog.
Whatever the cause of your dog’s limping might be, it is important for your pet to be seen by a veterinarian, who can work with you to provide the right treatment options for your dog.
Galliprant is an NSAID that controls pain and inflammation associated with osteoarthritis in dogs.
Galliprant Importance Safety Information
Not for use in humans. Keep out of reach of children and pets. Monitoring is recommended if used long term. Should not be used in dogs who are allergic to grapiprant or with other anti-inflammatory drugs. The safe use of Galliprant has not been studied in dogs younger than 9 months of age and less than 8 pounds, breeding, pregnant or lactating dogs, or dogs with heart disease. The most common adverse reactions were vomiting, diarrhea, decreased appetite and tiredness. View full product label for complete safety information or contact your veterinarian.
- Lascelles D. Joint Pain in Pet Dogs and Cats. International Association for the Study of Pain (IASP) Fact Sheet. 2016.
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