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

Updated on March 22, 2018
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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

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 help. 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.

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 she 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 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.

© 2016 Dr Mark


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      Michael Lynn 2 months ago

      Thank you for this information.