By: Dr. Juli, DVM @itsDrJuli
Nothing is more worrisome than seeing someone we love in pain or struggling to walk. This is especially true with our four-legged family members, whom we work so hard to protect.
Limping is a natural response by your dog's body to alleviate sudden pain, discomfort, or abnormal joint confirmation. In most cases, limping is a sign of pain and could indicate a more severe injury or chronic issue. Although our pets may act very human-like, they will instinctually mask signs of pain, as their ancestors did to survive in the wild, to prevent themself from being vulnerable to predators.
Subtle changes in your dog's gait may be the only clue there is an underlying health issue. In some cases, limping may not be a cause to rush to the emergency veterinarian, but knowing possible causes and ways to support your canine companion will ensure you are prepared if a problem arises with your pup's paws, joints, or bones.
Common Causes of Limping in Dogs
Limping is one of the more common reasons pet owners bring their dogs for a veterinarian examination. While some underlying causes of limping, like a broken leg, may be immediately apparent, there are numerous other reasons your dog may exhibit lameness. Common causes for limping or lameness in dogs include:
Trauma and Animal Bites
Accidents can happen at any time, even if you are the most cautious pet owner. In some cases, trauma may not be immediately apparent; however, most dogs with broken bones will not put any weight on the affected limb. Additionally, animal bites from a dog fight can become quickly infected and swollen, leading to limping.
Hip dysplasia, elbow dysplasia, or shoulder dysplasia results from abnormal growth or improper joint formation during your dog's developmental phase. Large-breed dogs like German Shepherds are most at risk for dysplasia, which can also lead to painful arthritis later in life.
Pups who enjoy running, hiking, and walking in the great outdoors are at risk for paw injuries. Thorns or plant material with sharp edges can easily embed in your pup's paws and cause limping. Insect stings, bites, or accidentally stepping on a bee or wasp can also cause a painful paw injury that may not be immediately obvious. Use caution when walking your pup in the summer, as pavement heat can also cause painful paw pad burns, which lead to limping.
The cranial cruciate ligament (CCL) - the ACL in humans - in your dog's back legs is the most commonly ruptured ligament in dogs. Dogs with a CCL injury often have a history of running or jumping off furniture, followed by a sudden onset of limping.
Inflammation of the bones and joints is a degenerative condition typically affecting older pets due to wear and tear or other underlying problems, like joint dysplasia. OA is the most common chronic disease affecting dogs. More than 25% of all dogs are affected, and more than 60% will show radiographic evidence of OA at some point.
Other Joint Diseases
Patellar (knee) luxation is a genetic condition more common in small-breed dogs. Although rarely painful, dogs with patellar luxation have an increased risk for painful OA as they age. Dogs who suffer from back inflammation, or intervertebral disc disease (IVDD), may also limp depending on the degree of inflammation and affected nerves.
Skin Infections and Allergies
Lyme disease, which affects your dog's immune system, is contracted from a tick bite and can cause joint swelling and lameness. Give your pet veterinary-prescribed flea and tick prevention medication to avoid this painful disease. Lyme disease vaccinations are also available.
Osteosarcoma, or bone cancer, often presents as progressive limping and is severely painful for your pet. Swelling may also be noticeable as the tumor grows in your dog's bone. Seek immediate care from your DVM if you notice any swelling on your dog.
When to Take Your Dog to the Vet for Limping
When in doubt, never hesitate to take your pup for veterinary care. Limping can present in various ways, including sudden onset, usually after an injury or trauma. If you notice sudden limping in your pup, monitor them closely. If the limping continues after 15-20 min of rest and observation, it's time to call your DVM.
Subtle, gradual onset limping can also occur due to an underlying illness, including osteoarthritis, joint dysplasia, or bone cancer. You may notice that your dog does not limp daily with some of these conditions. However, any limping is abnormal for your pup, so call your veterinarian to schedule your dog for a physical examination. Keep track of how often your dog is limping, when it started, and the severity. This information can help your DVM determine the underlying cause.
In some cases, dogs who are otherwise behaving normally may not need to rush to the emergency veterinarian, but having them seen as soon as possible is a good idea.
Bring your limping dog to the emergency vet if they display any of the following signs:
- Swelling anywhere on the leg(s)
- Vocalizing when touched or moved
- Limb(s) that are warm to touch
- Active bleeding
- Bone(s) that are protruding through the skin
- Dislocated joint (most dogs will not put any weight on a dislocated joint)
- Dangling limb
- An obvious broken bone or a limb that is in an abnormal shape or confirmation
Diagnosing and Treating Dog Limping
Never attempt to examine, bandage, or brace your dog's legs unless directed to by your veterinarian. Manipulating an injured leg can cause the problem to worsen and increase your chances of being bitten.
Use caution when transporting your pup to the veterinarian. Small dogs should be carefully carried so they do not further injure the affected limb. For larger breed dogs, lay them down with the affected limb up during transport; you can also help them walk by using a blanket or towel under them as a sling. Additionally, never give your dog any over-the-counter (OTC) or human pain relievers, as they can be toxic and deadly to dogs in some cases.
Your veterinarian will complete a nose-to-tail examination and may recommend several diagnostic tests, including blood work and imaging, like an X-ray, to determine the cause of your dog's limp.
Treatment will depend on the underlying cause and severity and may include:
- Strict crate rest for more than three weeks
- Anti-inflammatory medication
- Pain medication
- Surgical correction of a fracture
- Antibiotic medication
- Biopsy of a mass
- Cast or a brace on the affected limb
- Physical therapy
How to Support Your Limping Dog
Accidents can happen anytime, so it's not always possible to prevent your dog from limping. However, there are numerous ways your can support your pup's joints, as well as decrease the chances of them suffering from painful bone and joint issues, including:
- Providing your dog with joint support supplements.
- Keeping your dog at a healthy weight. Ensure their daily treat allotment does not exceed 10% of their daily calories.
- Providing aging pups with an orthopedic bed to ensure they are comfortable when resting.
- Placing a ramp or stairs near your bed to prevent your dog from jumping on or off the bed.
- Providing carpeting in areas of the home where your dog walks or rests. Slick floors, like tile, can be difficult for pets with arthritis or sore joints.
- Placing protective booties or a paw salve, like Musher's Secret, on your pup before walks to prevent injuries to your dog’s paws
- Bringing your dog for regular veterinary care visits to ensure their joints and internal organs remain healthy.
- Keeping your dog's nails trimmed to prevent painful broken toenails and to allow them to grip the ground better.
For more tips on your pet's health, check out the Native Pet blog.