Why is Your Dog Limping, and What Can You Do to Help?
Fall always seems like a perfect season for walks outside—the weather is crisp, there’s still some good sunshine, and there are plenty of leaves for your dog to run around in.
So, you lace up, grab the leash, and then… wait, what? Why is the dog limping?
The reasons that a dog might limp are numerous and vary in seriousness. Some cases will resolve with a few days’ rest while others require veterinary intervention to improve.
Here we discuss some of the main causes, diagnostic steps, and treatments veterinarians utilize to get you and your partner back in stride.
Possible Causes of Dog Limping
Dogs can get muscle and joint soreness just like their human counterparts, especially after a session of more than usual exercise. Usually, this kind of dog limping will only be mild, and they will recover from their soreness within a few days.
Trauma, in this case, can encompass anything from an insect bite or sting, to a soft tissue injury, to a broken bone.
One common soft tissue injury in dogs is a cruciate ligament tear. This injury often occurs in large breed dogs and is typically sudden, often after slipping or “landing funny,” and the patient is often unwilling to bear weight in the affected hind leg. Physical exam and x-ray findings can help diagnose this issue, and surgery is typically required to achieve the best return to function.
Paw Foreign Body or Laceration
Running around on their bare feet all day, it is no wonder that dogs can get thorns, burrs, glass, or rocks in their paws. Some plant material such as grass awns or foxtails can burrow into the skin and may fester, cause a swelling or abscess. This may require lancing and exploration of a way to remove it. Lameness in this instance can occur in any leg, and depending on the foreign body, may appear as mild to severe dog limping.
Keeping your dog’s nails well-trimmed is important to help prevent toenail injury. Torn or broken toenails are common and can be quite painful. Some may require veterinary attention, bandaging, and pain control, while others will heal over time. Dog limping from a toenail injury can occur in any leg and may be mild to severe.
Panosteitis (Wandering Lameness or Growing Pains)
This condition typically affects growing large-breed puppies, ages 5-12 months. Pain and lameness are variable with panosteitis and tend to move from one limb to another over several weeks or months. Symptoms of this condition usually disappear by 20 months of age.
Arthritis can affect dogs of all ages, but it is most common as an age-related change in older dogs. As dogs get older, their musculoskeletal system naturally becomes weaker, and joints start to break down or develop irregular surfaces. Dog limping from arthritis is usually slowly progressive or intermittent and can be mild or severe.
Congenital or Developmental
These conditions are more likely to manifest in younger patients and can be related to defects in the way the bones and joints are forming. One such issue is dysplasia, a hereditary condition that causes the joint to become loose and slip out of place. Hips and elbows are most often affected by dysplasia.
Another condition called osteochondritis dissecans (OCD) occurs when diseased cartilage at the end of bone separates from the underlying bone. It most commonly affects the shoulder, elbow, hip, or knee (stifle) joints. This is a developmental disease that occurs in rapidly growing medium to large breed dogs typically between 6 and 9 months of age. It also may occur more often in male dogs.
The affected joint may be swollen and warm to the touch, and the dog may cry out when the joint is manipulated. Limping for a dog with OCD may be mild and intermittent or may result in constant severe pain in which the dog avoids bearing any weight on the affected leg. Limiting dietary intake of calcium reduces the incidence of this condition and of other developmental orthopedic conditions.
Luxating Patella (Dislocated Knee)
A luxating patella occurs when a dog’s kneecap moves out of its natural position. Lameness may be constant or occasional, mild to moderate, or severe with the dog unwilling to bear weight at all. Many small dogs live with this condition with it never resulting in arthritis nor pain, nor interfering with the dog’s life. However, in other cases, surgical treatment is necessary. The condition is hereditary and breeds, such as Yorkshire Terriers and many toy breeds are predisposed. A dislocated knee can also be caused by external trauma.
Infections that cause dog limping may be superficial as in the case of wounds. They can also be in the bones or joints themselves, or even be systemic as in the case of Lyme Disease which occurs secondary to tick bites. With infection, the severity of dog limping varies, but early detection and treatment provide the best chance for improvement and avoidance of complications.
Some spinal cord issues such as those that occur secondary to a bulging or ruptured intervertebral disk can result in dog limping and/or loss of feeling of one or more legs. Additionally, conditions such as diabetes can result in peripheral neuropathies or pain and numbness in the extremities. Finally, Degenerative Myelopathy is a progressive disease of the spinal cord that occurs in older dogs. Initial symptoms include weakness and dog limping, but the disease can eventually progress to paralysis.
Soft tissue tumors within limbs or glands can cause dog limping of varying severity. Bone cancer, which is especially prevalent in larger breeds, can grow rapidly and cause moderate to severe pain and limping.
Diagnosing Your Dog’s Limping
In order to determine the most appropriate diagnostic steps, veterinarians take a thorough history and consider the age, breed, activity level and timeline for the onset of limping. Your veterinarian may ask you when you noticed the dog’s lameness. Was it all of a sudden? Did the limp start out slowly and stay the same or worsen over time?
Certain conditions are also more common in older animals while others occur more frequently in young, growing animals. Certain breeds, body types, and activities are also correlated to certain types of lameness.
A physical exam will follow that assesses the patient’s gait and puts the joints through a range of flexions and extensions, taking note of any limitation or restriction of movement, abnormal consistency, or “crunchiness” in the joint and any pain response. The vet may place a strain on a joint and then ask the owner to jog the dog to attempt to localize the dog’s limping. If appropriate, x-rays may be undertaken to assess the skeleton.
For certain issues, especially those for which a cause is not readily apparent, your regular vet may recommend that your pet is evaluated by a specialist such as an orthopedic surgeon or neurologist.
Treatments for Lameness
Many dog limping problems can be addressed with appropriate rest, pain control and anti-inflammatory therapies while other situations require surgical correction. Whether medical or surgical therapies are employed, many pets will also benefit from acupuncture, physical therapy, or oral joint supplementation (glucosamine).
Another possible treatment is injectable polysulfated glycosaminoglycans, which have been shown in the lab to inhibit the enzymes that degrade cartilage and bone as well as suppress inflammation and stimulate synthesis of replacement cartilage.
The importance of appropriate rest for a limping dog cannot be stressed enough. “Appropriate rest” involves crate or very small room confinement. Setting up a pen or baby gates may work as well to limit space.
The pet should be housed on non-slip flooring with ample soft bedding and should only be allowed out of the space for bathroom breaks while being kept on a leash. Accordingly, the pet should not be allowed to run, jump, rough-house, or make sudden movements.
The recommended duration of rest will vary from a few weeks to a few months depending on the injury and will be at the discretion of your veterinarian. If you are having difficulty keeping your pet quiet or calm in these instances, sedatives can be prescribed. You can also try DAP (dog appeasing pheromone) which can be purchased online without a prescription.
Get Help From a Mobile Vet
As with most physical conditions a dog experiences, if you notice your dog limping at all, the best course of action is to contact your veterinarian. Vet’s Here mobile veterinary clinic can provide examinations, necessary x-rays or diagnostics, and advise the appropriate course of treatment, all in the comfort of your own home. If your dog is limping, contact Vet’s Here today so we can help you get your furry friend back on four legs.