Causes of Limping in Dogs
Why is My Dog Limping?
A dog may start limping out of the blue, following some injury you hadn't noticed. Or a limp may develop gradually over time, for example due to the onset of arthritis. Limping in dogs can be caused by many different things. The underlying cause needs to be addressed and understood, as it may be something much different than a simple sprain.
When I worked at a veterinary hospital, and was often responsible for making "triage" decisions about what to do about an injured dog, we would give priority same-day appointment slots to dogs who wouldn't put weight on their injured leg. The most worrisome cases of limping are those where the dog refuses to put any weight on the affected limb.
Here are some steps you can follow to pinpoint the cause of limping in dogs.
1. Inspect the limb. If your dog just began limping, start by carefully inspecting the affected limb. Look for any evidence of injury such as the following:
- Insect bite
- Foreign objects stuck between the toes
- Torn toenails
- Swollen or misshapen foot or leg
If you see a thorn or other foreign object stuck in the paw pad, you may get some tweezers, go to a well-lit area, and try to carefully remove it. Muzzle your dog for safety! If you suspect something is stuck, but it seems to be deep under the skin, you can immerse the foot in a mixture of Epsom salts and water, and see if that helps the foreign object to work its way out.
2. Palpate the limb. Obviously, don't handle the limb if there are obvious signs of fracture (swelling, disfiguring of the limb, or protruding bones), or if you own an aggressive dog, or one that tends to bite when in pain. But otherwise, you want to gently feel the affected limb, while looking at the dog for any clue that he is feeling pain; this will help find the source of the problem. Each dog has its own way of manifesting pain: some may startle, others may whimper, and others may growl.
3. Decide whether to monitor the situation or seek veterinary advice. At this point, you should try to address your findings. If there is a thorn, you should try to remove it; if there is a cut, you want to medicate it and keep it from getting infected. If the source is not easy to identify, it is best to seek veterinary advice, including about whether you need x-rays. It's possible that the limping is not caused by any particular small problem, but by a disease affecting multiple limbs or the whole body.
Injuries Due to Accidents
Aside from evident cuts, foreign objects, or torn nails, there are still a long list of possible causes of limping. One of the most common causes is accidents. Your dog may have injured itself jumping out of your car or playing in the yard. If you witnessed the injury, then the cause of the limping will be obvious; but If you have been away and come home to a limping dog, the cause may need to be investigated.
- Sprains. Dogs get muscle sprains just as humans do. They can result from a sudden movement while playing. Sprains and limping are especially common in working-dog breeds. Most non-serious sprains usually resolve by themselves within 48 hours. However, if the dog is in evident pain and appears uncomfortable, you should consult with the vet. He will identify the cause, and may prescribe anti-inflammatories for pain relief. Rest is key to a faster recovery.
- Fractures. Fractures are usually pretty obvious: the leg is not bearing weight, the dog will be in obvious pain, the leg may appear deformed or swollen, and sometimes the bone may even be protruding out of the skin. The dog may have bleeding from such an injury that needs to be stopped. It is obvious the dog needs prompt veterinary attention. On the way to the vet, the dog should be restrained from moving, to the extent possible. It is helpful to carry the dog. While a fracture is most often due to an accident, bone cancer (discussed below) can also cause fractures.
Limping Caused by Problems in Growing Dogs
Large young dogs are prone to problems as they grow. These disorders often have a genetic basis. Puppies of large breeds may develop a limp between two months and two years of age, often because they grow too fast, putting extra strain on the bones, cartilage and muscle. Sometimes diet aggravates the problem: too many calories, protein intake, and incorrect proportions of calcium and phosphorus. Here are some common growth-related causes of limping.
- Pano (panosteitis). Typically this condition shows up in dogs six to nine months of age, though it may be found in dogs up to 18 months old. Pano can be thought of as "growing pains"; the marrow found in the long bones develops abnormally for a time. Typically the dog presents with sudden limping without any known injuries. He is able to put weight on the leg, but will show obvious pain. The lameness may show up sporadically and may shift from leg to leg. Palpating the limb by pressing or squeezing the middle of the shaft of the long bone usually elicits a pain response from the dog. Treatment consists mainly of pain management and diet change. While Pano may last two to five months, the dog should recover fully.
- HOD (hypertrophic osteodystrophy). This condition occurs mainly in puppies two to eight months old. It is the inflammation of the growth plates (the cartilage at the end of a growing bone). Typically, palpating the distal (lower) end of the long bone will elicit a pain response from the dog. The joints may feel hot and look swollen. The dog will appear lame, almost as if walking on egg shells. He also be lethargic, have a fever and lose weight.
- OCD (osteochondrosis dissecans). This painful condition is caused by a defect in the cartilage surface of the joint. Cartilage may come detached and float around the area of the joint. OCD commonly affects the shoulder, but may affect other parts of the limb, such as the elbow, knee, hocks, or stifle. The condition is best resolved by surgery to replace the defective cartilage.
Vet Explains How to Check a Dog Limping on its Rear Leg
Other Causes of Limping in Dogs
While limping in a puppy or young dog may be related to growth, in older dogs there may be different causes. Following are some non-growth-related causes of limping, affecting the front legs and the rear legs.
Limping Affecting Only Front Legs
- Elbow dysplasia. In this condition, the top of the ulna is not properly fused to the rear point of the elbow. The dog will appear lame and will respond to pain when its elbow is extended.
Limping Affecting Only Rear Legs
- Hip dysplasia. Hip Dysplasia in dogs is a genetic disorder, and all breeding dogs should be screened before mating. In hip dysplasia, because of structural defects, the ball of the hip doesn not fit properly in its socket. Affected dogs will have trouble walking and in particular may have a hard time getting up from lying down.
- Ruptured anterior cruciate ligament. This is often seen when the dog accidentally twists on his hind leg, causing the cruciate ligament to tear. This can happen on slippery surfaces, or when a dog is hit by a car. Breeds predisposed to this problem are Newfoundland, Labrador retriever, Rottweiler, and St. Bernard. Affected dogs will typically appear lame, holding the affected rear leg off the ground. The knee may become swollen.
- Luxating Patella. When your dog exhibits pain in the stifle or knee-cap area, he may have a luxating patella, a problem often seen in small breeds of dogs such as Yorkies, toy poodles, and dachshunds. An dog with luxating patella may skip when it runs.
Other Diseases That May Cause Limping
- Bone Cancer. Large-breed dogs are prone to bone cancer. Affected dogs may develop severe lameness and unexplainable fractures after even a slight injury. Bone cancer is a serious condition in dogs, often requiring amputation of the leg to reduce pain.
- Arthritis. As dogs age, the continuous friction of the joints can cause inflammation and arthritis. Affected dogs are typically middle-aged to senior, and will become reluctant to jump out of the car or climb up the stairs. They may walk more slowly, and have more pain in the mornings. Anti-inflammatory drugs may work very well. Home remedies for arthritis in dogs are also worth trying.
- Lyme disease. This disease is carried by ticks. Affected dogs will usually develop an unexplainable limp a few months after the tick exposure. Commonly, the limp will be barely noticeable at first but then will progress up to a point where the dog may be unable to walk. Many dogs affected by Lyme disease are literally carried by the owner into the vet's office. Accompanying symptoms may be fever and lethargy. The disease is treated with antibiotics such as Doxycycline or Cephalexin.
- Valley fever. This fungal disease found in the desert Southwest may cause a cough accompanied by limping.
- Neurological disorders. For example, a "slipped" or out-of-place disc in the spine can put pressure on nerves in the spinal cord, cutting off the messages from the brain to the legs that allow proper movement.
The only way to know for sure what is causing a dog to limp is to have the dog seen by a veterinarian, and possibly undergo x-rays or further tests.
This article is not supposed to be used as a substitute for veterinary advice. If your puppy or dog is limping, please see your veterinarian for proper assessment and treatment.
Have questions? Discuss your dog's health with other users at Dog Health Forums. Allergies, cancer, and limping are a few of the many topics!
Dr. Greg Explains What to Check For in a Limping Dog
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