How to Find out Why Your Dog Is Limping Without Going to the Vet
What to Do When No Vet Is Available
In some parts of the world, no small animal veterinarian is available. In other countries like here in Brazil, there are plenty of small animal veterinarians in big cities like Rio and São Paulo, but none in isolated rural areas like parts of the Amazon. Whether you live in an area without a vet, or are just traveling with your dog, sometimes your pet needs help and no one is available.
A lame dog needs veterinary care, if available, and if not needs some some assistance. When your dog starts limping it is best to find out what is wrong as soon as possible. If you are in an isolated area, you might need help (from a feed store, pet shop, or pharmacy), but you can do a lot yourself.
Find out what is wrong, so you can do what needs to be done, but no more. If your hunting dog only has a cut on her pad, you do not need to give her steroids. A pet with a bee sting does not need to be treated for a broken bone.
Step Back and Look
Find out first why your dog is limping; not all lameness looks the same. If your dog is in so much pain that she cannot even put her weight down, it will be obvious which limb is affected and your exam can go on from there.
If not, watch her walk for a while and you might be able to tell where the problem is. Sometimes a dog will only be lame when walking, and she will raise her head up when she puts the sore leg down, then lower it down again when walking on the good leg. Sometimes a dog will have a stiff limb when walking but show no other signs.
Once you have figured out which leg is causing her problems you should do a better examination.
Front Leg Lameness
- 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, or rock, or an inflamed tick?
- Check the nails. Squeeze each nail at the base and move it around a little; sometimes nothing is obvious but your dog will cry out when you touch the painful nail.
- Flex the foot and then the wrist, the joint above the foot. If your dog has been licking at one spot, that may be the site of the injury, or maybe even a sign of arthritis. Arthritis is much more common in older dogs but can even affect young dogs.
- Run your hand up and down the long bones of the leg. If there is a broken bone or other injury, there may be swelling and your dog may yelp or snap.
- Move the elbow.
- Rub the muscles of the shoulder. Gently rotate the whole leg in a circular motion.
Rear Leg Lameness
- Check the 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.
- Examine each nail. Look for cracks, and touch them all to see how your dog reacts.
- 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. Do not assume that any swelling is a broken bone, since a bee sting or snake bite can cause swelling too.
- When you get to the knee, pay special attention. Tiny dogs are more likely to have a kneecap that slides from side to side. If it is “stuck” the dog will be lame. Active dogs are more likely to suffer from torn cruciate ligaments and the knee bones might slide back and forth.
- Rotate the leg at the hip. If the dog is in pain she may be suffering from arthritis in the hips.
Simple Treatments for Common Injuries
- Injuries to the pad. Clean the wound with water, physiologic saline, or dilute hydrogen peroxide. Disinfect it with dilute tincture of iodine. If she has a deep wound it is a good idea to pack in a little antibiotic ointment and, if the dog is the kind that licks at her wounds excessively, wrap it with some gauze and you can even put Vetrap on the wound to keep it all in place. If you do need to use Vetrap, make sure you leave the toes visible to watch for swelling when the bandage is too tight. If you are not sure how to do this, just leave the dogs wound clean and unwrapped. You can cover the foot with a sock when she goes outside to “do her business” but take the sock off as soon as she is back inside.
- Injuries to the webbing. If your dog is injured in the webbing, that delicate skin between the toes, remove whatever is causing the injury and then wash the area out with water, saline, or dilute hydrogen peroxide. Sterilize it with betadine (or chlorhexidine if you have it available), and it should be okay. If it is bleeding the foot will need to be wrapped; just make sure the toes are visible to watch for swelling. If you do notice any swelling, remove the bandage immediately to prevent gangrene.
- Injuries to toenails. Any time a toenail is injured, you need to make sure and check all of them since any long toenail can get caught in grass or weeds and become injured. Clean the injured toenail, and if it is bleeding wrap it up for about 15 minutes or until the bleeding stops.
- Sore joints. Any joints that are sore should be massaged and wrapped up for at least 15 minutes in a wrapped ice pack. Some of the massage gels available help a lot but be sure to clean the gel off after you are done so that your dog does not lick it off. If you are not sure what kind of knee injury your dog has and you need more details on that problem you can read more about first aid for cruciate injuries.
- Broken bones. If the dog has a broken long bone, the best thing you can do is keep her a quiet as possible. Your dog will need to get up sometimes, of course, and to help this you can apply a temporary splint with a magazine held in place by duct tape. This “magazine-splint” is very temporary, and should not be left on all of the time or it can cause ulcers where it rubs against the body. Read the section below on antibiotics.
- Snake Bite. Any swelling over a bite could be a bee sting, an insect bite, or even a snake bite. Where I live, many of the large farmers keep snake bite antivenin on hand for their cattle, and know which vipers are most likely to bite. A dog that has been bitten, however, may not survive like a cow would, because of their small size relative to the amount of venom injected. If you see a swelling, clip the hair above the wound and look for the type of bite (insect or snake). Give the dog an antihistamine right away (like diphenhydramine, 5mg/kg) but do not give any aspirin for the first day since bleeding may be severe. The wound will probably become infected, so if he survives the effects of the venom he will need antibiotics.
- Bee sting or insect bite. A bee sting or insect bite will probably get better by itself but some insects cause more swelling and pain than others. If you do not know the common stinging insects in your area, be sure to ask. If you have an antihistamine, you can give your dog a dose (oral diphenhydramine, 3mg/kg twice a day) to reduce the swelling and make the pain less severe.
What About Other Medications?
- Anti-inflammatory drugs. All of the anti-inflammatory drugs can cause problems, but if your dog is in pain then aspirin is the safest. You can give about 8-20 mg/kg/every 24 hours. Give the smallest dose first, see how she responds, and then only give more if needed the next day. (Aspirin can upset the stomach of some dogs so I like to give it with a meal, something like lunchmeat, if she is upset and not eating well.)
- Antibiotics. It is difficult for me to recommend any particular antibiotics since there are so many different formulations available in different countries. If your dog has a broken bone she might need antibiotics but you should consult a local pharmacy or feed store to find out which suitable antibiotics are available in your location.
A Word of Caution
I wrote this article because many of the people I have met out in the country have no access to veterinary care for their dogs. If your dog is lame, and the problem is not obvious or easily treatable, please visit a small animal veterinarian if you have access.
Some problems cannot be diagnosed except with blood work or an x-ray, and some dogs will have conditions that will require surgery. A sore joint may be due to a tick borne disease, and no amount of rest will help. A sore leg might be broken because of osteosarcoma (bone cancer), and if it is not treated promptly and aggressively your dog is going to die.
Do everything you can. Your dog is depending on you.
A Homemade Muzzle
Some causes of lameness can be very painful and even the calmest dog might snap without meaning to. This video describes how to apply a muzzle using the gauze that you should have available in your dog´s first aid kit.
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.
Questions & Answers
My five-year-old lab was running through the yard and suddenly start yelping and wouldn't put weight on his rear right leg. I examined it and nothing seems broken. He let me bend all of his joints, but he won't put any weight on it. I don't want to rush to an emergency vet if it not needed since we live in a very rural area. Should I wait a day or so to see if he ends up putting weight on it?
The most likely cause of a running lab showing sudden lameness without obvious cause is a cruciate injury. Read this article to get some ideas on first aid: https://hubpages.com/dogs/dog-cruciate-ligament-re...Helpful 54
My beagle won't put weight on his hind foot/leg. After laying around for a few minutes, he will stand up but will walk with a slight limp till he's loosened up. I've checked everywhere, and he shows no sign of pain. Do you have any idea what could be wrong?
It is possible that your beagle has a cruciate ligament injury: https://pethelpful.com/dogs/dog-cruciate-ligament-...
It is also possible that he has a patellar problem, but that is not as likely to disappear as he warms up. I recommend having his leg x-rayed to look for deformations or problems with the femoral head.Helpful 46
My eleven-year-old staff cross is limping, but has no sign of pain when touched. What could cause this?
The most common cause of lameness in an older large breed dog is arthritis. IF she is not painful when touched it is probably early. Take her to your regular vet and have her leg x-rayed to look for signs of arthritic changes in the joints.Helpful 43
I was walking my dog and all of a sudden she jumped up and started to cry. Now she is limping. Could it be a possible insect sting?
An insect sting is certainly a possibility. You do not mention what leg she is limping on. There are many more possibilities. Is there any swelling or localized pain? If there is a spot you can treat, you can try putting a cold pack on it and see if your dog feels better in the morning. If she does not, or you do not find anything that can be treated, she will need to be examined by your regular vet.Helpful 1
My 7-month-old Pomeranian limps on her back leg sometimes. She will still run and play but will limp ever so often. I have checked her pads and nails, and she seems to be fine. Do you have any idea what might be going on? She’s been limping on and off for three weeks or so.
The most common cause of limping in a tiny dog of that age is a luxating patella. That is when the kneecap moves out of place and gets "stuck." The dog will limp until it moves back into place.
It is painful. It will grow worse with time. You should read more about this and get your dog examined.
Here are some alternatives you can try if your dog is diagnosed with a bad knee: https://pethelpful.com/dogs/how-to-fix-a-trick-kne...Helpful 13
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