Causes of Limping in Dogs
Why Is My Dog Limping?
There are many causes of limping in dogs, so it's important to carefully evaluate your situation. For instance, a dog may start limping out of the blue, following an injury you hadn't noticed. Or a limp may develop gradually over time, for example due to the onset of arthritis.
Whatever the underlying cause, it needs to be addressed and understood, as it sometimes may be something much different than a simple sprain.
Keep in mind that dogs do not limp without reason. Even though it may seem fine, your dog is experiencing pain if it is limping.
You should try to see the vet immediately if your dog has any of the following symptoms:
- Dangling limb (dislocation)
- Hot limb
- Obvious break or unnatural angle
Quick Look at Some Causes
Here's a quick look at some common causes of lameness, where they happen, and some other risk factors. I'll go into more detail about these below as well as help you understand how you can examine your dog to see if you might need to see the vet immediately or if you could wait a little bit.
- Trauma or injury — This could happen to any kind of dog on any of their legs and could include muscle sprain, cuts, insect bites, or — on the more serious end — fractures. Be careful when working with an injured animal! Avoid moving them unnecessarily, and be aware that they may bite out of pain. See below for information on how to examine your dog to find out if you need to go to the vet.
- Pano (panosteitis) — This condition is caused by bone inflammation and usually affects puppies between six and nine months old. It is more common in medium or large breeds. All of the sudden, the dog may start limping without any other injuries. There is no cure, but your vet can consult on managing the pain and changing the dog's diet to alleviate symptoms.
- HOD (hypertrophic osteodystrophy) — This bone disease mainly occurs in the front legs of young, rapidly growing, large breed puppies two to eight months old. The dog may have symmetrical lameness in the front legs, have a fever, be lethargic, and lose weight. See a vet to learn how to manage your dog's pain.
- OCD (osteochondritis dissecans) — This condition most often affects a dog's shoulder. The main symptom is lameness, which can vary from dog to dog in severity. Treatment is usually through surgery or symptom management and rest — your veterinarian can advise.
- Elbow dysplasia — Usually only the front legs are affected by this disorder, and its onset can either be sudden or gradual. The dog may also display symptoms intermittently. Other symptoms include mobility changes or irregularities in the affected limb. Your vet can consult on whether it needs to be treated through surgery, lifestyle changes, or a combination of both.
- Hip dysplasia — This condition only affects the rear legs and often begins when the dog is young. Look for signs that the dog is avoiding putting weight on its back legs or using its hips (like gait abnormalities or a reluctance to run or go up stairs). There are a variety of treatment options depending on your dog, the severity of the condition, and its age. Your vet will be able to advise.
- Ruptured anterior (or cranial) cruciate ligament — Roughly the equivalent of an ACL tear in a human, this injury affects the hind legs and often happens when the dog accidentally twists on their hind leg. The dog will appear lame and hold their leg off of the ground. It may be treated with a kind of surgery called tibial plateau leveling osteotomy (TPLO), depending on the size of your dog.
- Luxating patella (dislocated kneecap) — This condition only affects the rear legs, with pain evident in the stifle or knee-cap area. Affected dogs may skip or hop when they run. It often affects small breeds like Yorkies, toy poodles, and dachshunds. It can be treated through surgery, though your vet may opt for non-surgical care.
- Bone cancer — Cancer of the bone is more common in large breeds, though it can be found in any dog. Dogs may become lame or develop fractures after even slight injuries. Other symptoms include fatigue, tumors, or loss of appetite. Bone cancer is an aggressive illness — see your vet immediately if you suspect your dog is affected.
- Arthritis — As in humans, this condition is more common in senior dogs, who will show a reluctance to jump out of the car or walk up stairs. The dog will walk more slowly and have pain in the mornings. You may also notice weight gain, sleeping more, less interest in playing, and a change in attitude or alertness. Treatment includes weight loss, symptom management, and lifestyle changes.
- Lyme disease — Dogs will gradually develop an unexplained limp two to five months after being exposed. They may also have a fever, feel lethargic, have swollen joints and lymph nodes, and lose their appetite. Your veterinarian will be able to treat it through antibiotics.
- Valley fever — This is a fungal disease found in the Southwest that generally affects very young or very old dogs. Lameness is a symptom of the disseminated disease. Other symptoms may include a fever, harsh cough, lethargy, or depression. For treatment, the dog must take anti-fungal medications.
- Neurological disorders — A slipped or out of place disc in the spine could put pressure on nerves in the spinal cord, which may cause the dog to become lame. The vet will need to examine your dog carefully to determine if the cause of your dog's lameness is orthopedic or neurological.
What to Do If Your Dog Has a Limp (Lameness)
When I worked at a veterinary hospital, I was often responsible for making "triage" decisions about what to do about an injured dog. In the process, I would give priority same-day appointment slots to dogs who wouldn't put weight on their injured leg. The most urgent cases of limping are often 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 and figure out if you need to take your dog to the vet.
1. Inspect the Limb
If your dog just began limping, start by carefully inspecting the affected limb. Don't forget to look in between the toes! Look for any evidence of injury such as the following:
- Cuts on your dog's paw
- Insect bite (for example, if your dog stepped on some fire ants)
- Foreign objects stuck between the toes
- Torn toenails
- Swollen or misshapen paw 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 paw pad's 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 clear 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 (many dogs will).
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 and even attempt to nip.
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 embedded in the paw, 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.
Read on for more information about what may be causing your dog pain.
Reasons Why Your Dog Might Be Limping
Aside from evident cuts on your dog's paw, foreign objects, or torn nails, there is still a long list of possible causes of lameness.
Injuries Due to Accidents
One of the most common causes of lameness 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. Sprains are injuries of the soft tissue, like muscles or ligaments. 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 and show marked improvement within 48 hours. However, if the dog is in evident pain and appears uncomfortable, you should consult with the vet. They will identify the cause, and may prescribe anti-inflammatory drugs for pain relief. Rest is key to a faster recovery. Do not attempt to exercise a dog that is limping.
- 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 will be obvious the dog needs prompt veterinary attention. On the way to the vet, the dog should be restrained from moving to what 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 known as "pathological 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 the dog eats. Diet problems include too many calories, high protein intake, or the 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. It 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. There is no cure — only management for the symptoms.
- OCD (osteochondritis 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 dog may experience lameness in the affected limb. 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 lameness, affecting the front legs and the rear legs.
Limping Affecting Only Front Legs
- Elbow dysplasia. According to PetMD, this is one of the primary causes of forelimb lameness in large and giant-breed dogs and is characterized by a series of four developmental abnormalities that lead to malformation and degeneration of the elbow joint. 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. Your vet will do a physical examination and diagnostic tests, such as an x-ray. Surgery may be required to treat.
Limping Affecting Only Rear Legs
- Hip dysplasia. This is a condition where the hip joints fail to develop normally. 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 does 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. Symptoms may have either sudden or gradual onset. Watch for gait irregularities or signs of hip pain in your dog when playing, jumping onto the couch or in the car, or when going up the stairs.
- Ruptured anterior cruciate (or cranial) 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. It's possible for the ligament to tear little by little over time as well. Affected dogs will typically appear lame, holding the affected rear leg off the ground. The knee may become swollen. Surgery may be required to treat the condition.
- Luxating patella (also called a patellar luxation, or a dislocated kneecap). When your dog exhibits signs of pain in the stifle or knee-cap area (between the femur or thigh bone and the two lower leg bones), they may have a luxating patella, a problem often seen in small breeds of dogs such as Yorkies, toy poodles, and dachshunds. A dog with a luxating patella may also skip when it runs or have sudden lameness. See your vet for diagnosis.
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. Other symptoms include lethargy, tumors, or loss of appetite. See your vet for diagnosis.
- 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. Other signs include walking more slowly, or having more pain in the mornings. Anti-inflammatory medication 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, lethargy, and joint swelling. 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. Treatment involves anti-fungal medication given over a period of several months.
- 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. Your vet will have to examine carefully to determine whether the cause of your dog's lameness is orthopedic or neurological.
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. Do not give your dog pain medication without a vet's guidance.
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.
Dr. Greg Explains What to Check For in a Limping Dog
Does your dog see the vet for a limping problem?
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© 2009 Adrienne Janet Farricelli