Just like humans, dogs sometimes break bones, sprain muscles, slip discs, or tear ligaments, all of which can lead to the sudden onset of limping or movement difficulties.
Limping is caused by a variety of problems, such as injury, infection, inflammation, anatomic
defect, cancer, and degenerative diseases. The onset of limping may be sudden (known as acute onset), or develop more slowly over time, as seen with chronic disease.
In dogs, arthritis (sometimes referred as osteoarthritis) and injury are two of the most common causes of lameness. While arthritis usually presents as a chronic disease, it can also present as a sudden onset of lameness, should a jarring or untoward movement occur.
For example, while cruciate ligament disease is considered a chronic problem in dogs, it usually presents as an acute lameness when the weakened ligament is traumatized and causes sudden pain in the knee.
What to Watch For With Limping
In most limping cases there will be no external sign of damage. Pets may bear weight on the limb, tap the toe on the ground, or completely refuse to put any weight on the limb. In some cases, pets may intermittently experience limping and seem fine in between bouts, as we often see with luxating patellas.
When is Limping an Emergency?
In severe cases of trauma, limbs may dangle at an unnatural angle when fractured or dislocated. Bones may even pierce the skin. Sometimes bleeding as well as swelling may also occur. Pets who are dragging a limb may also be suffering from nervedamage.
Fractures, dislocations, bleeding that does not stop in a minute or two, severe swelling, hot limbs, or dragging limbs should all be evaluated immediately.
Primary Causes of Limping
The most common causes of limping are trauma, sprains, ligament disease, and osteoarthritis. That being said, limping has many causes and it often requires a full exam by a veterinarian to determine the exact cause of lameness.
Immediate Care for Limping
In all trauma cases:
Do not move the dog. Restrain it if necessary.
Check for broken bones (including dislocations) by observing the angle of the limb and its stability. As a rule of thumb, weight-bearing lameness is unlikely to be a fracture.
If there are no obvious breaks and the dog can hobble, there is generally no need to splint the leg.
Lame dogs should be confined and their movements restricted for a few days.
Persistent lameness (more than 24 hours), suspect fractures, severe swelling, inability to stand, or dragging of limbs requires immediate veterinary attention.
In cases of severe pain or swelling:
If the dog is large and is able to walk on three legs, allow him to walk to the car and take him to the vet immediately. Small dogs will need to be gently carried.
If the dog is suffering from back pain rather than a swollen limb, cradle him while carrying him to the car. (Because it may be difficult to distinguish back pain from limb pain, handle all limping dogs gently). Be sure to support the pet under the abdomen and chest if back injury is suspected.
In mild cases of weight bearing or intermittent lameness:
Apply a cold compress (such as a wet cloth or bag of frozen vegetables) to the joint to help reduce inflammation.
If the area remains inflamed or the dog exhibits pain for more than 24 hours, switch to a warm compress and bring her to a veterinarian for an evaluation.
DO NOT administer over the counter medications without a veterinarian’s guidance. Ibuprofen, Tylenol, and aspirin can cause significant side effects and require a washout period before veterinary NSAIDS can be given.
An initial exam for limping consists of a physical exam and an orthopedic exam. While this may help guide the diagnosis, x-rays are often needed to evaluate the condition of the joints and bones. For soft tissue injuries, your veterinarian may need a CT or MRI to pinpoint the damage.
Living and Management
Never exercise a lame dog. In fact, the dog must be allowed to rest completely for a few days, and up to several weeks. When the lameness subsides, continue resting the dog for at least another 24 to 48 hours. Only then should you reintroduce exercise, and only in a gentle and progressive manner. As always, persistent or worsening lameness should be evaluated by a veterinarian.
This article was verified and edited for accuracy by Dr. Jessica Vogelsang, DVM