No Vet Available?
Many parts of the world do not have veterinarians available to take care of a limping cat. Even here in Brazil, where there is a veterinarian available in every neighborhood in places like Sao Paulo and Rio, in isolated areas of the northeast and amazon there are no vets. Internet access via satellite, sure; local veterinary care, no way.
If your cat is lame and you do have a vet available to help, you should make use of that person. Do not try to save a few bucks and make your cat suffer. A cat with a puncture wound to the pad is going to recover quickly if treated properly but will develop an abscess and suffer if you just treat him or her for a sprain.
This article is not going to be able to help all suffering cats. Some problems just need medical care. If no vet is available, however, these tips will help some of you take care of many limping pets.
Be Careful During the Exam
Treating an injured cat can be very difficult. Almost all cats will tend to react poorly when in pain and will sometimes bite and scratch. I have included a video that shows one vet tech's method of handling an aggressive cat. Others feel that it is important to use long gloves but the blanket technique demonstrated here works very well.
Before beginning the examination consider your cat`s home life.
- If you still let your cat outside, an injury is the most common source of the problem.
- If you have two cats you should put a cat bite abscess at the top of the list.
- If you have a single indoor cat an orthopedic problem (back pain, hip dysplasia, cruciate rupture, etc) is more likely. Orthopedic problems are seen mostly in older cats but even if your cat is still young he or she may have a problem.
Sometimes finding the source of the problem will be very easy but at times many cats will be difficult to figure out. (Cats are great at sitting down during the exam and just ignoring your best effort to find the problem.) If the cat has a wound that is so severe that they cannot bear weight, it will be obvious, and most cats with a broken bone will not even attempt to walk.
If it is not obvious, just stand back and watch for a while. Some cats will only have problems when walking. If you can figure it out, you can do a more detailed examination of the lame leg. If not, examine all legs carefully.
Start by just holding the leg for a while. You can begin to apply light pressure on the leg and feel for any swelling or heat from an abscess. Flex all of the joints and watch your cat's reaction. (If he or she vocalizes or tries to escape your exam, that is a sign of pain.)
Cats can be very nervous during an exam. This list describes an exam starting at the toes, but sometimes I find it is easier to stroke the cat first and then examine the top of the leg and work my way down the leg. This will vary for each individual, so be flexible.
- Look at the pads of the foot and see if there are any obvious cuts, sores, or swellings. Is there anything stuck between the pads, like a thorn, rock, or an inflamed tick?
- Check the nails. Take the time to push each nail out and look carefully to see if it is inflamed or swollen.
- Flex each of the toes of the foot and then the wrist, that joint just above the foot. Massage gently and look at your cat for any signs of pain.
- Run your hand up and down the long bones of the leg. If there is an injury your cat will probably let you know.
- Move the elbow.
- Massage the muscles of the shoulder. Gently rotate the whole leg in a circular motion.
Before even starting the exam run your hands up and down the cat´s back to try and calm him or her. If your cat is very nervous, start from the last step and move your way down to the feet.
- Check your cat´s pads for any cuts, abrasions, or swellings.
- Run your fingers between each toe to check for thorns, gravel, or injuries to the soft skin of the webbing.
- Extend and examine each nail. Look for wounds at the base of the nail, broken nails, any swelling, redness, or excessive heat.
- Flex the bones of the foot and then the joint just above the foot.
- Open and close the hock (the joint just above the foot).
- Run your hand up and down the long bones of the legs.
- Some cats with a displaced knee cap will not even try to walk. If your cat is very relaxed you can move the knee around and find out if there is any pain or looseness indicating a torn ligament.
- Rotate the leg at the hip. Cats will usually do okay with hip dysplasia but will not walk much.
Simple Home Treatments
Nail injuries are pretty uncommon in cats and are usually fairly easy to treat. If the nail comes off at the base, instead of just losing the top of the nail, there might be some bleeding but it can be stopped with pressure or a styptic pencil. The rest of the nail should be cut fairly short and the affected nail bed cleaned two or three times a day. I like to clean with sterile saline and then dab on some chlorhexidine or dilute iodine. I do not use antibiotics on cat nail wounds because they tend to lick it off and develop diarrhea.
Thorn or Injury to the Toe or Pad
If your cat has something between his or her toes just remove it and clean the wound. If the pad is injured and bleeding, apply pressure until the bleeding stops and then clean the wound. (To clean pad wounds I like to flush with a generous amount of sterile saline and then disinfect with chlorhexidine or dilute iodine.) You should clean any wound about three times a day. I only bandage cats when I am sure the owner is going to be watching closely since if the bandage is too tight the cat will lose circulation and the foot will necrose or the cat will die. I am also not a fan of using antibiotic ointment on cat wounds since they will usually just lick it off and develop secondary diarrhea.
Sprained Joint and Pulled Muscles
If your examination shows that your cat has a swollen and painful joint, or a pulled and painful muscle, you can use ice packs to relieve the swelling. Anti-inflammatories are a great help, but there is not much you can give your cat at home. (Please read the section below.) Acupressure on the sore area´s pressure point can also be very helpful, as is a gentle massage to the sore muscles.
This is a difficult problem because, as anyone who has suffered from an abscess already knows, abscesses are extremely painful and are slow to heal until they break open and drain. If taken to the vet, the cat is sedated and the abscess is opened and a drain is sewn in so that the pus will continue to drain.
Obviously, you cannot do this at home. The best thing you can do is apply a warm compress to the abscess so that you can encourage it to break open. If the cat will allow it, squeeze the abscess to help it drain.
Antibiotics are often necessary to help a cat heal from this type of wound, so if you have access to a pharmacy or feed store that sells this type of medication you should utilize it.
Cats do a lot better than dogs with a broken bone since they tend to stay quiet when injured and their bones are a lot more normal than many dog breeds. If you are sure that a bone is broken, a splint made out of a toilet paper roll can be held in place with Vetrap, but the splint needs to be removed every day so that you can be sure it is not rubbing the skin and causing injuries to the soft tissue.
Antibiotics like clindamycin are helpful to prevent an infection from developing at the wound.
Chronic Arthritis or Back Pain
There are not a lot of things you can do at home for a cat with hip changes or sciatica. The best thing you can do for your cat is to keep him from being overweight. You cannot find over-the-counter pain medications that will help your cat over the long term, so the best thing to do is give him a natural supplement like Cosequin. You cannot allow a cat like this to remain outdoors.
Heart Disease or a Stroke
If blood circulation is abnormal because of blood clots secondary to hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, your cat can become lame in the hind legs. There is nothing that can be done about this without diagnosing the problem and putting your cat on medications to help the heart.
Although this can be common in some areas, consider it a final diagnosis after you have ruled everything else out.
There can be some other less common reasons for limping, like a neurological disease. This would be a very uncommon diagnosis, and there is not much you could do at home if this is the case.
All Injured Cats
The other thing you can do at home with a limping cat is make things a little easier. Put the litter box in an area where it can be used without jumping, make sure there is food and water in reach, and it is even a good idea to keep the cat in a large dog crate so that he or she does not jump up on the couch or a bed.
This video demonstrates a method of examining a cat with back pain, which can lead to lameness. Watch the cat reacting to a painful area to learn how to examine your lame pet.
Here are some medications you need to consider.
Many of the medications that we use to treat pain in dogs are deadly in cats. The only drug you might have around the house that can be used is aspirin, but only if you have children's aspirin tablets that are only about a fourth of the strength of a normal aspirin tablet.
The dose for a cat is 10 mg per kilogram, so if your cat weighs 12 pounds, or about 5 kilograms, you can only give half of an 81-milligram children's tablet. If you only have adult tablets your cat would get less than one-eighth of a tablet and you cannot be sure that the dose is accurate. It is too dangerous.
Aspirin in cats is not very safe; it can only be given every 2-3 days, and if you overdose your cat by giving it more often he or she is likely to develop stomach problems, hepatitis, and will eventually die.
Other common household anti-inflammatories like paracetamol (Tylenol) and ibuprofen will kill your cat. If you are able to get medications from your vet, there are several very helpful alternatives available.
It is difficult for me to recommend any particular antibiotics since there are so many different formulations available in different countries. If your cat has an abscess, most antibiotics will be essential in helping him or her heal quickly, but the most important part of the therapy is allowing the wound to drain.
Amoxicillin, Clindamycin, and Cephalexin can all be used safely with cats.
Possible Pain Alternative
One alternative in some countries, which has yet to be fully tested, is CBD oil. If you go this route make sure that the product is labeled for cats as THC can be dangerous to cats. The veterinarian in this video uses this product and is pleased with its effectiveness.
If There Is a Veterinarian Available
There are going to be some readers that will use this article as an excuse to not take their cat to the vet. That is not what it is for. Some readers in rural situations have no access to veterinary care and their cats will suffer without any treatment at home. If you do have a vet in your area and are able to take your cat in for an exam, the problem might be diagnosed easily and your cat can recover quickly.
Do whatever you can for your cat as soon as possible.
- Leonard CA, Tillson M. Feline lameness. Vet Clin North Am Small Anim Pract. 2001
- Perry K. Feline hip dysplasia: A challenge to recognise and treat. J Feline Med Surg. 2016 Mar;18(3):203-18.
- Harasen G. (2009). Feline orthopedics. The Canadian veterinary journal = La revue veterinaire canadienne, 50(6), 669–670. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2684059/
- Schmitt, K., Lehner, C., Schuller, S., Schüpbach-Regula, G., Mevissen, M., Peter, R., Müntener, C. R., Naegeli, H., & Willi, B. (2019). Antimicrobial use for selected diseases in cats in Switzerland. BMC veterinary research, 15(1), 94.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.