Limping, or lameness, can occur in any dog and any breed for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it’s a passing thing, comparable to a strain whilst playing sport, and sometimes it’s something more serious or ongoing. It can occur in any leg and sometimes in more than one leg. Because there are so many different causes, sometimes it can be hard to work out why your dog is limping.
How easy is it to spot?
A lot of people can recognise a severe limp in their dog – for instance because of a broken bone or a thorn in the foot. More subtle limping can be harder to spot. The problem is that the vast majority of dogs just ‘get on with it’ – they’ll rarely yelp, whimper or cry, but this doesn’t mean it’s not painful. In fact, for all but the most serious of injuries, it’s far more likely that they’ll simply hide the signs, which makes it hard for us humans to notice a problem. So how can you tell if your dog is limping?
What does limping look like?
If the lameness is just in the one leg, dogs may hold the leg from the floor and not use it at all. This suggests a severe level of pain. They may also use the leg, but spend as little time on it as possible, either by lifting it when running or favouring the leg, producing a waddling motion or a noticeable ‘head bob’ if the front legs are affected. This is even harder to see if a dog has two sore legs – for instance arthritis in both elbows or hip dysplasia in both hips. Sometimes they may lick the affected area in an effort to soothe the discomfort, especially if the affected area is easy to reach.
What can cause my dog to limp?
Joint diseases such as cruciate disease, joint infections and joint fractures are all possible, and dysplasia (malformed joints) is common in some breeds. Arthritis is the most common cause of limping in dogs, and affects 80% of geriatric dogs. It’s a degenerative disease – meaning it gets worse over time – where the smooth sliding motion of the joint is lost, resulting in pain and inflammation. Your dog is more likely to have arthritis if they:
- Are a large breed
- Are obese
- Are older than 8 (although arthritis can occur at any age, it is more likely in older dogs)
- Have done heavy work or exercise (such as agility or sport dogs, or working farm dogs)
- Have had a previous injury to the joint (such as a fracture or knee injury)
- Have been diagnosed with dysplasia of the joints
Injuries to the bones themselves are usually restricted to fractures, but some rarer diseases, such as bone cancer, can cause severe lameness too. Fractures are usually more common in younger animals, and usually have a defined traumatic cause, whilst bone cancers start without a cause and get worse over time.
Strains and Sprains
Injuries to the soft tissues of the muscles, tendons and ligaments can cause limping. Sometimes these are simple strains that go away with a little rest. It’s also possible that they can have a more serious injury that doesn’t right itself (such as a cruciate ligament tear or rupture).
Foot injury such as cuts, torn nails and masses can cause a dog to limp, especially if the injury is to the pad. Foreign bodies, such as grass seeds or thorns, working their way in are also a common cause of sudden-onset limping. This type of injury often results in your dog licking the affected foot repeatedly.
What should I do if I notice my dog is limping?
If your dog is limping, it’s a good idea to book a vet visit. A subtle limp that has been going on for some time is unlikely to be an emergency – although remember that your dog will likely be uncomfortable and will hide signs of pain, so getting them into the vets for pain relief and an assessment is still important. If your dog cannot bear weight on the limb for more than a few seconds then they’re in severe pain and should be seen as soon as possible.
What will the vet do?
The vet will conduct a clinical examination. Normally, they’ll ask you a few questions about your dog whilst feeling along your pet’s limbs. Be sure to tell the vet which leg you think it is that hurts, but don’t be surprised if they check all the legs – this helps them to compare your dog’s flexibility and reactions as well as make sure nothing is missed. Taking along a video of your dog limping is very helpful, especially when a limp is intermittent or subtle – dogs tend to be extra brave at the vets and stop limping, so it can be hard for us to tell where the problem is without a video.
Narrowing down the cause
In some situations, the vet may suggest a pain relief trial at home to help narrow down the problem, or when it seems to be soft-tissue injury. Often, however, x-rays are suggested. Your dog will need to have a sedation for these to be taken, so will usually stay in for most of the day. The x-rays allow your vet to see broken bones, inflamed joints and arthritis, although they don’t always show an answer. If nothing appears to be wrong on the x-rays, a pain relief trial or further imaging are both options your vet will discuss with you.
What about treatment?
Treatment will depend entirely on the cause of the limping, but usually involves some pain relief, supplement support, rest, and weight loss if required. A few injuries, such as fractures and knee injuries, are usually surgically repaired to reduce pain and the risk of later arthritis. Degenerative or progressive diseases such as arthritis and bone cancers can’t be treated, but there are several management options that your vet will discuss with you.
Whatever the cause of your dog’s limping, your vet is best placed to help you evaluate how serious it is and what the best treatment options are.