How to Find out Why Your Dog Is Limping Without Going to the Vet

Updated on May 24, 2019
DrMark1961 profile image

Dr. Mark is a veterinarian. He has been working with dogs for more than 40 years.

If your dog is lame, finding out why is the first step.
If your dog is lame, finding out why is the first step. | Source

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. If none is available they need 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 their pad, you do not need to give them 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 they cannot even put their weight down, it will be obvious which limb is affected and your exam can go on from there.

If not, watch them 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 they will raise their head up when they put 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 problems, you should do a better examination.

Check the pads first.
Check the pads first. | Source

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.

Pay extra attention to those joints that your dog is licking excessively.
Pay extra attention to those joints that your dog is licking excessively. | Source

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, they may be suffering from arthritis in the hips.

Every dog owner enjoys watching healthy dogs at play.
Every dog owner enjoys watching healthy dogs at play. | Source

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 they have 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 their 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 they goes outside to do their business but take the sock off as soon as they are 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 them 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...

  • 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.

  • My three-and-a-half-month-old puppy spent yesterday roughhousing with an eight-month-old puppy. At first, he showed no sign of being hurt (i.e., no yelping, no sign of not wanting to roughhouse, etc.), but this morning he woke up with a slight limp on his front right leg. There was no sign of any pain or discomfort when I touched his leg and foot, and he's still happy to run and jump off the sofa. He still has a slight limp, but the limp gets better once he’s loosened up a bit. What could be wrong and how can I help?

    Palpate the joints on the front leg with the limp as soon as the puppy wakes up. Does one part of the leg feel more painful than the other?

    I cannot recommend giving a little puppy aspirin even if you do find it. Your vet might want to give your dog pain medication, based on the exam, but if this continues, it is important to have him examined first.

    If you do not, and the puppy is suffering from an injury to the growth plates in his front leg, he might develop a deformed leg later in life.

  • 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.

  • 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...

© 2016 Dr Mark

Comments

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    • DrMark1961 profile imageAUTHOR

      Dr Mark 

      5 weeks ago from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil

      Liz--your dog is in pain. See your regular vet if you can.

    • profile image

      Liz 

      5 weeks ago

      My 4 yr old Doberman/Rottie he came in from outside and he won't put his front paw done i have checked his pads the bigger pad he wimps when he tries to set it down he keeps it up when he tries to get down Thank you.

    • profile image

      Sandra 

      7 weeks ago

      My dog a german shepherd 4 years old 41kg has been limping for 8 days. It seems to be her front right leg. She doesnt seem to be affected by it as still eating normally and still wanting to play I had her at the vet 2 days after limp who checked her over & suggested sprain prescribed 3 days tramadol & advised to rest this did not help limp was still there although no better or worse still eating drinking & want to play as normal took her back to vet on 4th day & prescribed 7 days of meticam suggested it could be start of athritis we are now on day 5 of the meticam and limp is still present isnt getting worse or better, still eating drinking wanting to play, I have examined all legs paws nails on a daily basis & can see no obvious injury & she never whines or pulls away. I have no idea where the pain is or what caused it. But everytime she walks she is limping with her front right leg. Any ideas what it could be?

    • DrMark1961 profile imageAUTHOR

      Dr Mark 

      7 weeks ago from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil

      Valerie, the article mentions aspirin.

      IF this is a hind leg lameness, a cruciate ligament problem is most likely. If you want to read more about it check https://pethelpful.com/dogs/dog-cruciate-ligament-...

    • profile image

      valerie skilling 

      7 weeks ago

      my lab sometimes is a bit stiff then races like crazy in the woods chasing squirrels the the next day shows a bit lameness in one leg.Her gait looks okay one minute then limping a bit. She doesn't mind me touching and pulling her legs. Is aspirin safe for dogs?

    • DrMark1961 profile imageAUTHOR

      Dr Mark 

      8 weeks ago from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil

      Jake, since your dog is in pain you can give aspirin. (See details in artilce.) If it seems to be getting worse, or not getting better even with pain killers, he should be seen. It is impossible to tell if it is a fracture without an x-ray but that is a possibility.

    • profile image

      Jake 

      8 weeks ago

      My German Shepherd was outside and came in limping off his back paw. I checked his pads and his webbings and there doesnt seem to be any sign of anything but when i do a small squeeze and put some pressure on the foot he is in pain, is it possible its broken ? How long should i wait to try and seek a professionals help?

    • profile image

      MJ Nunes 

      2 months ago

      My 3 year old Golden Retriever wasn't putting any weight on her left front paw this morning. When walking, sitting or standing, she would hold it up. If she's lying down, she'll move her foot around without any apparent pain. I checked her pads and nails and didn't see anything, though she became uncomfortable with me touching her paw. When I gently manipulated her wrist, she yelped in pain. There doesn't appear to be any swelling, broken skin, or bones that seem out of place (I compared to her other leg). She'll eat and drink at meal times, and appears happy and her "usual" self unless I'm touching her paw/wrist. What do you think could be causing her limp and pain?

    • profile image

      Jennie McMann 

      2 months ago

      My 10 month old whippet keeps limping when walking on hard surface fine when on grass. Vet cannot find why. Had X-ray showed tiny bit of glass which was removed but still the same ..it’s been 6 weeks now. He can dig fine with both legs,doesn’t make any signs of pain just holds the paw up.. can anyone help

    • profile image

      April M 

      3 months ago

      My almost 1 year old lab german shepard is limping. When she stands or sits she raises her paw. She doesnt cry or seem in pain. She still runs around and plays with other dog

    • DrMark1961 profile imageAUTHOR

      Dr Mark 

      3 months ago from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil

      Megan, how can you tell it is not the cruciate ligament? It can be strained but not ruptured, in which case the signs are mild. That is the best option for an injury to the knee too.

      The best thing you can do for him is to allow adequate rest. I am not sure for how long as it depends on how he recovers. If it is quick, keep him quiet for a few more days.

      If this continues, he will need to go to the vet for further diagnosis and maybe an anti-inflammatory injection.

    • profile image

      Megan 

      3 months ago

      My Pyrenees/Golden mix started limping on his back leg yesterday. I've looked at his feet and toes, moved his knee and hip, he lets me do anything and doesn't seem to be in pain - doesn't pull away or yelp when I touch any part of the leg. He was even jumping around and running with my other dog. But he won't put his foot down when he pees (he normally stands on both and squats) and doesn't put a ton of weight on it when standing or turning around. There's no swelling that I can see. I've read the cruciate ligament article and it doesn't seem to be that, and I read the diagnosing a lame dog article as well. Do you have any other thoughts? If it's a pulled muscle or something would that heal on its own?

    • DrMark1961 profile imageAUTHOR

      Dr Mark 

      4 months ago from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil

      Samantha, it may be arthritis (secondary to an old injury), a cruciate problem, or many other things. If you are taking him to the vet make sure that he is not running around. Rest is the best medicine at this time.

    • profile image

      Samantha Thomas 

      4 months ago

      My dog wass hit by a car 3 yrs ago. He's started limping and now wont put weight on back leg. Having a hard time getting up to stand. No yelping tho wen i touch it/rub it,or wen trying to get up. Vet appt. in3 days. What do til then. Hes very uncomfortable.

    • DrMark1961 profile imageAUTHOR

      Dr Mark 

      6 months ago from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil

      The most common cause of hind limb legness in a Yorkie is a luxating patella. It may have been normal during the exam, moved out of place again later.

      Also consider Legg-Calves-Perthes disease, an aseptic necrosis of the feroral head. He will need radiographs to confirm this diagnosis, so you will need to take him to your vet.

    • profile image

      KZ 

      6 months ago

      Today my 14# larger body frame, so not overweight, Yorkie dog began dragging his left posterior leg that seems to have become flaccid. My human doctor husband did a ROM and joint exam. There are also no known or obvious injuries either. He was walking fine yesterday.

      Dr, possible causes of such symptoms ???? He’s up to date on all vacs and heart worm treatment. No routine meds either.

    • DrMark1961 profile imageAUTHOR

      Dr Mark 

      7 months ago from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil

      Bomb, if you are taking her to vet on Wednesday I would recommend waiting. At her age you need to have her shoulder x-rayed to make sure there is not something more serious going on, and before giving her a NSAID like aspirin she needs a thorough exam and possibly blood work to make sure there are no underlying problems. Just be sure to lift her up to the bed and couch, and do not let her jump down and injure herself even more.

    • profile image

      Bomb 

      7 months ago

      Hi doc! My 14 year old chihuahua must have fell on steps a few weeks ago, we heard it but didn’t see it. She was fine and walking normal. Then she jumped off couch about a week ago, face first. She has been slow moving but the past day she is having a hard time putting weight on her right shoulder. She’s limping and walking but not putting much weight on it. She seems uncomfortable but not severe pain. Any suggestions? I am going to take her to vet Wednesday when I get paid

    • profile image

      Gary milnes 

      7 months ago

      hi my dog nala she is a puggle but is a little lame i have been through her whole back leg and foot she dosnt yelp or wince and no obvious signs of a problem and still runs around playing

    • DrMark1961 profile imageAUTHOR

      Dr Mark 

      9 months ago from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil

      Jasmine, he needs to be looked at by your vet so at this point all I can recommend is rest. He may have a hairline fracture of one of his metatarsals or may even have a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament.

      https://pethelpful.com/dogs/dog-cruciate-ligament-...

    • profile image

      Jasmine Ritter 

      9 months ago

      Hi my 4 month old Lab/Blue Healer mix jumped out of our car window 2 days ago we were only going about 10 mph. He hasnt been walking on his hinde leg since. He will use it to scratch and put some weight on it when he uses the bathroom. The closest hes came to walking on it was just tip toeing. He doesnt seem to be having any pain. He layed around a lot the day it happened. As of today hes acting the same as he was before. The only area that seems to bug him whem we touch it is his paw. Theres no swelling or cuts/scraps anywhere. We really just cant afford a vet right now and wont be able to for a few weeks. Any advice would be appreciated.

    • DrMark1961 profile imageAUTHOR

      Dr Mark 

      10 months ago from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil

      Baxterandbonnie--the most likely cause is a soft tissue injury or a bone injury in the paw. If you can not take her to the vet, the only thing you can try is rest and possibly an anti-inflammatory like aspirin. The best thing you could do though is take her to your regular vet and have the paw xrayed. If the vet does not find anything he may want to put her on a steroidal anti-inflammatory drug.

    • profile image

      Baxterandbonnie01 

      10 months ago

      Hi, i have a 2 year old beagle. She always plays rough with my other beagle. Shes starting limping on her front leg, its worse when shes not moved for a while. But when shes warms up she still limps and doesnt put full weight on her paw or raises it. I cant see any injury and she doesnt mind me checking it. Although she does pull it away when i reach her paw. What could it be? Thanks

    • DrMark1961 profile imageAUTHOR

      Dr Mark 

      12 months ago from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil

      Kerry, the tick borne diseases that your dog is prone to will vary depending on your area. Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain Spotter Fever are two examples.

      Tick borne diseases can often be treated with antibiotics but lameness does not show up in most cases until the arthritis is pretty advanced. It is much better to prevent the ticks from getting on your dog, or removing them each day to prevent them from being on long enough to pass many of the disease organisms.

    • profile image

      Kerry 

      12 months ago

      What if is a tic born disease? What can you do?

    • profile image

      Michael Lynn 

      16 months ago

      Thank you for this information.

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