Dogs can become lame or limp for a various number of reasons. Unlike when we hurt ourselves though, they can’t tell us how they injured themselves or where it hurts. That is why taking your pet to your veterinarian when you see limping is important.
Of course, there are different types of limping or issues that can cause these injuries and not all are emergencies. There can be acute vs. chronic types of limping and having your vet examine your pet can help narrow down why that limp is occurring. In general, if your pet has a more gradual, intermittent issue, this might be a more, chronic condition like hip dysplasia or arthritis. If your pet injures a paw or fractures a bone, you will see sudden limping. If you see a gradual onset limp or even an acute limp that doesn’t seem to be bothering your pet—these can most likely wait for normal veterinary hours and don’t need to be rushed to the emergency hospital. If your pet suddenly injures itself and exhibits signs such as swelling, dangling limbs, obvious fractures, ataxia or stumbling—these are more serious issues and should be addressed immediately.
There are many causes of limping in dogs and limping can range from chronic conditions to acute trauma. We will go through five common causes of limping in dogs.
Injuries of the Paw:
Dogs have a very thick, specialized tissue on their paw pads but they can still get injuries to those areas. Foreign material such as glass, thorns, and nails, can become lodged into the paw pads and cause injury. Also, lacerations or burns to this area can cause acute limping as well. Injuries such as broken nails, infection from lacerations or wounds, or even issues like frostbite or sensitivity to salt on the ground during the winter can cause the paws to be sensitive and uncomfortable to walk on. You may see your pet holding up his paw or licking that area constantly and there may be blood or pus if the area is infected. These are all signs that your pet should be seen, they may need antibiotics and pain medications or wound cleaning/bandaging.
We can also see limping or gait abnormalities when we are dealing with systemic illnesses such as tick-borne infections like lyme or autoimmune disease. These tend to be more gradual in onset, but we can see an acute onset as well. We frequently see other signs such as lethargy, decreased appetite, swelling of joints and fever.
Some conditions that cause lameness can be due to injuries to the musculoskeletal system. Gradual wear or tear of ligaments or tendons or injuries within joints themselves can cause joint pain which leads to limping. Dogs can also have issues with the development of the elbow joint, specifically the cartilage in that joint. These tend to lead to arthritic changes within that joint. Even more common injuries involve the soft tissue structures of the joint. Dogs can get cranial cruciate ligament tears (like human ACLs), meniscal tears and luxating patellas (kneecaps). These injuries are seen daily in veterinary practice. With these injuries your dog will have hind end limping. They may be seen toe-touching with that hind foot or not fully bearing weight on the injured leg. An entire blog on one or two of these specific injuries will be available in the future since they are so very common.
There are also diseases that affect the actual bones in your dog. Young, rapidly growing large breeds can have conditions such as panosteitis or hypertrophic dystrophy. Panosteitis can cause pressure within the bone and cause stimulation of pain receptors on the outside aspect of the bone. This leads to acute, limping in younger dogs that may shift from one leg to the other. Hypertrophic osteodystrophy can be seen in the front limbs of dogs. This is a non-infectious inflammation of the bone which can lead to swelling or bony growth in that area. There is bilateral swelling of front limb joints and this can be very painful. Limping in older dogs that involve the bones tend to be either osteoarthritis or bone cancer. Osteoarthritis affects the joints/cartilage and we can see chronic inflammation that can lead to a gradual lameness. Bone cancer such as osteosarcoma tends to a gradual onset with increasing pain in that certain limb.
Traumatic injuries tend to be the most obvious causes of limping. These are the ones you see occur or can pinpoint the cause; car accidents, sports injuries, pets falling off the bed, etc. With these injuries, we see anything from fractured bones to soft tissue injuries. If you see your pet injure themselves and become lame after, keep them quiet and calm and wait a few minutes. If after a half hour your pet is still non-weight bearing or limping, you should bring them in to be seen by their vet. If an injury seems to be improving by itself, you can continue to monitor it and it may resolve without needing medical attention, but make it a point to strictly monitor your pet during that time.
Sometimes the cause of the limping is glaringly obvious—glass in a paw pad or broken limb that is at an odd-angle and other times the cause is unknown. Your dog may need radiographs to help identify fractured bones, joint disease or other skeletal issues. Other tests like biopsies or joint fluid collection and blood tests to rule out tick illnesses or systemic issues may be needed.
The treatment for all these different conditions varies greatly, which is why bringing your pet to the veterinarian is important. The treatment could be as simple as a few days rest with pain medication or it could require surgery, further imaging or testing or months of rehabilitation and recovery. Which is why in most limping cases, the sooner you bring your dog to see a vet, the better the prognosis!
Is your pet limping? Have more questions? Give us a call to schedule an appointment today by calling 860-669-5721.