It is not unusual for pets to start limping all of a sudden, however, sometimes such sudden lameness can go away within a week, but sometimes it can be a sign that something is seriously wrong with your dog’s health. That is why it is important to visit the vet as soon as possible and determine the cause for lameness. If your dog starts avoiding putting his weight on a limb or you notice that he is not moving as much as before, that means that it is probably because of the limping.
The reason for such lameness can be because of a paw injury which is the most common cause; however, it could even be because of a urinary incontinence or spinal cord injury. In any case, you should be prepared beforehand to notice the difference in behavior because some dogs tend to endure pain which can result in even worse condition later on. You know your dog’s habits and behavior the best and it is up to you to see and prevent any pain caused to your beloved furry friend.
This article will provide you with some basic guidance to some of the most common causes and treatments for a dog’s limping and lameness.
Determine the injured limb
The first thing that you need to do when you notice your dog limping is to determine how bad it is. That means that you should determine which limb is injured and whether the cause for limping is the injury or it is more serious. Firstly, after noticing something suspicious, watch your dog walk or move around. In that case a dog would put his weight on the healthy limb while avoiding standing on its injured limb.
You can also identify this by looking at your dog’s head – if his head and neck are more upward, it means that one of the front limbs is injured. But if it is one of the hind limbs, then his hips will drop when he moves and walks. After you determine the injured limb(s), you must examine it. Check out the toes and the paw. This kind of examination will tell you how the dog responds when applying pressure. Hip injury can be debilitating, so read our article on how to help your pooch with joint impairment to ease his pain.
Toes – First you must check the dog’s toenails, because the reason for pain could be a cracking or splitting. Just like with humans, if a nail is split, the exposed sensitive tissue and blood vessels can be very painful. These cracks or splits usually do not require a vet’s intervention, however, if a toe is broken or if the wound has got infected, then that means that you must go to the vet immediately. You should examine each toe individually and touch or squeeze it so you can see the dog’s reaction.
Webbing – Secondly, you must examine the soft skin which connects each toe. That space between toes can stretch and it comes in handy when it comes to swimming, for example. But it can also get easily sliced up by various sharp objects on the surface such as rocks, thorns etc. A limp should resolve after removing these objects, however, if the cause for limping is some kind of mass, cyst or infection, then going to the vet is a must, because only the vet can inspect it properly.
Pads – Each dog has six protective pads on his front paws and five pads on his hind paws. They are usually thicker than the usual dog’s skin; however, they can be easily sliced up and injured, just like the webbing. Even though these pads are hardened and they consist of keratin, they can easily become too dry; develop warts, get irritated or too hard etc. This means that you should not skip checking them because they can be also a cause for limping.
Joints – There are many joints in a dog’s body, however, there are three major joints in the front limb (the wrist, the elbow and the shoulder). The ankle, knee and hip are in the hind legs. You can check each of these joints by applying a light pressure on them and watching for your dog’s reaction. Increase the pressure to make sure that the joint is okay. You can also examine the joint by lifting the limb and moving it slowly.
Bones – Your dog’s body consists of 321 bones. If your dog has got one of them bruised or fractures, that is enough for him to start limping. Look for any signs of swelling, bleeding or deformity. You can examine them in the same way as joints. If you notice anything suspicious, visiting the vet is a must!
If you have not found a cut, sprained ankle, injured paw or anything else that you can treat by yourself, then you are probably dealing with a more serious injury, disease or trauma. This is the point when taking your dog to the vet is a priority.
Other possible causes
If there is no sign of minor injuries such as the ones mentioned above, then the cause may be related to your dog’s age. It is not unusual for younger dogs (the ones of less than 18 months of age) to develop sudden lameness due to the congenital conditions. It is also important to make a distinction between an immediate and gradual lameness.
The immediate lameness happens suddenly, and it can range from very simple causes such as the ones mentioned above (cuts, splits, fractures, wounds, splinters etc) or they can happen due to dangerous conditions such as the decay of the discs in the spine. Other causes can be ticks, genetic diseases, allergy etc.
If your dog develops lameness gradually, that means that the cause is a progressive disease, which is the most dangerous condition. That includes arthritis and cancer. That means that you should react the very first moment you notice something wrong about your pet.
- Sprains and strains: These kinds of injuries are the most common, especially when it comes to active dogs that run and move a lot. As we mentioned before, you can notice the change in behavior when you examine the joints and bones and the way your dog movies his head or hip. In that case you should apply a wild cloth to the injury, but carefully watch it, and if the dog keeps showing signs of pain, take him to the vet.
- Paw injuries: These injuries, also called lacerations, can be very painful and you will know that it is this kind of injury if your dog keeps licking the wound. If it is not treated, it can become infected which will result in the wound becoming red, warm and tender. In severe cases you can notice even pus coming out from the wound. The pain in the paw and limb will worsen too.
- Bone fractures: Your doggie can badly hurt his limbs if he gets into an accident, so you should always take care of him and walk him on leash in urban areas. Bone fractures are also very common causes in dog limping cases. A bone fracture should be treated only by the vet.
- Dislocations: If your dog falls from somewhere or gets hit by a car, a dislocation can happen which results in severe pain that your pet will barely handle. He probably won’t put any weight on the injured limb and you can even notice a slight deformity caused by the injury. Just like with broken bones, only a vet can treat it, so take you dog immediately to the vet.
- Ruptured ligament: A ruptured ligament in the stifle joint or a knee joint is also a common injury that results in a dog limping. This can often happen to young and very active and energetic dogs that jump and move a lot. A ruptured ligament usually heals after a couple of days of rest; however, it can come back if not treated properly or if the dog starts moving a lot without a rest. Just like humans, it can cause trouble later, so it should not be taken lightly.
- Spinal cord injuries: Car accidents, falls or gunshot wounds are the most common causes for a dog limping. Your dog would probably suffer from a lot of pain in his neck and back, and he can even develop urinary problems. Taking your pet to the vet is a must in this case, because the severity of the injury can turn into something even worse. And you would not want your dog to become paralyzed.
When it comes to non-injury cases, the causes can be various diseases, and most of them are either genetic or too severe, so the treatments are needed. However, it is important to know that the sooner you find out the cause, it will be easier for your dog and you and there is always more hope.
- Inherited bone and joint diseases: Young and middle-aged dogs are usually the ones affected by these diseased. They are accompanied by the swelling on the legs and some of the examples of inherited bone and joint diseases are hip dysplasia (which is a common cause of front leg lameness), elbow dysplasia (a common cause of front-leg lameness), and panosteitis («pano» or commonly called wandering lameness because the pain and lameness shift from one limb to another over the course of several weeks or months.)
- Degenerative joint disease: is also called arthritis or osteoarthritis, and this type of joint diseases is common in older dogs. Nowadays there are special medications and drugs that can help dogs and relieve them of pain, but the limping usually gets worse when the dog improves or walks around. Arthritic pain is burdensome, so read our article on this agonizing illness to find out more.
- Bone tumors: or osteosarcomas tends to occur more often in large-breed dogs. These tumors are accompanied by firm masses or swelling with or without signs of inflammation. If you press on them, they can cause varying degrees of pain. Depending on the condition, a surgery can save your dog’s life, but sometimes the chemotherapy and other treatments are needed. Our complete information on canine bone cancer can add more insight to this condition.
- Hypothyroidism: This kind of condition can cause rather severe pain in joints. If your dog is limping, and is also showing some other symptoms typical in hypothyroidism (e.g. skin problems, hair loss, weight gain), ask your vet to check the dog’s thyroid hormone level.
- Lyme disease: is transmitted through the bite of a tick infected by the bacteria Borrelia burgdorferi and it can cause your dog to start limping. One or more joints can become swollen and become very painful to your touch. This kind of lameness may last for a few days. However, sometimes the limping will become chronic and will last for months. Some of the other symptoms of Lyme disease include fever, appetite loss, weight loss and lethargy. Our guide on Lyme disease can be an eye-opener for you, so take time to read it.
Depending on the severity of your dog’s injury or condition, you should first check for the cause, but if you are unsure or when you finally find out what is causing pain, take your pet immediately to the vet. If you are not sure what to do if your dog is limping even in mild cases, then you should know that you can apply a wet cloth to the joint to reduce the inflammation.
However, if the inflamed area does not go away, then you should switch to the warm cloth and take the dog to the vet. In other cases, if a dog is large, you should carry him to the car or cradle him while carrying him.
If the cause of the limping is an allergy or a bite by some animal or insect, you should also take your dog to the vet, because applying the medication on your own can worsen the symptoms. The same goes for ticks – you should not try to get them out by yourself, especially if you are not experienced. Flea control is key, so our article on tick and parasite prevention is a must read.
After you take the dog to the vet, he or she will then proceed with a diagnosis which can be determined by a simple physical examination, or in more complicated cases, by the use of X-rays, MRI or CT scans or surgery. Other tests include: taking a history (asking questions about the history of the limping), doing a dermatologic (check for the presence of lesions on the dog’s skin), musculoskeletal (test the muscle mass), neurologic (to test whether the nervous system is functioning properly) and laboratory tests (blood and urine tests).
When you finally leave the pet hospital, your vet will prescribe the medication for you to give to your dog so he can get better. That means that you need to pay more attention than before and make your dog stop chewing or scratching at the cast or bandages. This also includes monitoring your dog behavior – whether he eats, drinks, or whether there is anything suspicious in his behavior.
If you notice anything awkward, you should contact your vet immediately because that may be a sign that the medications do not work. You should also avoid stairs and slippers floors, and keep your pet on the leash when you take him out to relieve himself.
You should contact the vet immediately if you notice:
- Any unusual swelling of the dog’s limb or surgical site;
- Any skin rashes or sores caused by the pressure (blistered or raw areas);
- Any unusual smells or leakages from the surgical site;
All of these are signs that something is really wrong so you should not ignore them.
Additionally, the vets usually recommend the so called “cage rest”. This means that you should keep your dog in an appropriately sized box or cage to restrict his activity so he would not injure himself more. This can be very difficult for both you and your pet; however, you should know that if the vet recommends it, then it is of utmost importance to do so. Otherwise, your dog can injure himself more and end up in a worse condition than before. Crate training your adult dog is possible by following some simple guidelines that we’ve listed down in previous article.
If you want to make this easier for him, then you should keep him occupied with the toys he likes and an occasional treat that he adores. You can also pamper your doggie by giving him daily grooming and cuddling and you should not forget to turn on the radio or TV when nobody is at home so he does not feel lonely. Putting his cage or box in a high-traffic area of the house/apartment so he can be part of the household’s activities is another option. Choosing the right toy to keep your dog busy is one of our popular articles that you must read.
To sum up, it is never a good sign if your beloved furry friend is limping. However, you do not have to panic because the cause can be as simple as a cut or irritation, but you must always be careful and check your dog’s body carefully. This article provided you with a simple guide to the most common causes and diseases that can result in dog lameness. Some of them are not serious, but some of them are very severe and can result in your dog losing his life. Keeping your pooch healthy is possible and you can do so by reading our past article on the subject.
That is why it is up to you, as your dog’s master and his closest friend, to always watch him and take care of him.