With their active lifestyles and inquisitive nature, dogs can find themselves in all sorts of scrapes. And while dogs are resilient creatures, they can sometimes get hurt. A limping dog is not uncommon but is a sure sign that something is not quite right. And, as your pooch can’t tell you what’s happened or where it hurts, it’s your job as a pet parent to figure out just what is wrong – and what you need to do.
From a playtime sprain to something more serious, a limp in your dog should never be ignored. We take a look at all the main answers to the question – why is my dog limping?
What Does a Limp Look Like?
Lameness which causes a limp can be in just one leg or multiple limbs and is often characterized by your dog’s reluctance to place their weight on the affected limb or limbs. They may also hold the limb up or not use it at all, relying on their other legs to take the strain. However, a limp may be more subtle, in a dog with arthritis for example, and only present in a waddling motion when they walk. Your pooch may also get into the habit of licking the affected limb to soothe and ease the discomfort.
A limp can be caused by an injury or an underlying anatomical abnormality and is typically, but not always, accompanied by some level of pain. Whether it’s in just one leg or more than one, a limp can also be constant or come and go and can be more pronounced first thing in the morning or after exercise.
Some of the most common symptoms of a limp include:
- Refusing to bear weight on it
- Not able to place their paw on the floor properly (known as ‘knuckling’)
- Inability to walk or run normally
- Walking at a much slower pace
- Loss of muscle mass around the affected leg
- General signs of pain and discomfort
- Swelling around the joints
Gradual or Sudden Limping
There are two types of limp that may affect your dog – gradual or sudden onset. A gradual limp develops slowly over time and is typically caused by an underlying chronic condition such as hip dysplasia, arthritis or even cancer. As the name implies, a sudden limp comes on quickly and is usually a response to an injury or serious trauma. In both cases, a vet assessment is essential. While a sudden onset limp can be a veterinary emergency, you should never ignore a gradual limp as prompt attention means the cause can be treated more effectively.
Potential Causes of a Limp in Your Dog
With lameness common in dogs, there are a wide range of potential reasons they are limping. The following are the main ones to consider if you see your pooch with a limp:
Paw injury – one of the most common reasons for a sudden limp in your dog is a minor injury to their paw. This is often caused by a foreign body getting lodged in their paw when they are out for a walk. Glass, nails, sticks or thorns can get caught in their foot and make it uncomfortable to walk, causing your dog to limp. Walking on freezing ground or hot sidewalks can also cause injury to their paw pads. If you suspect a minor paw injury is causing their limp, stop and check your dog’s affected paw and remove any foreign objects that may have become lodged. If this doesn’t remedy the situation or there’s damage to their paw pad or foot, a trip to the vet will help to resolve the problem.
A broken claw – especially if they’re on the longer side, your dog’s claws can get caught on ground debris when out, or blankets or rugs back at home. This snagging can cause the claw to break, exposing the quick – the soft pink tissue in the center of your dog’s toenail – which may then bleed, leaving the toe tender and your dog limping as a result. To help prevent a snagged toenail, it’s essential to keep your dog’s claws neat and trimmed.
Trauma – this is the more obvious cause of serious limping and can include car accidents, and injuries when out walking or playing. Such injuries include broken bones, fractures, dislocations, joint or spinal trauma, which can all cause moderate to severe and pronounced limping, typically with no weight bearing well as other signs of injury such as swelling or broken skin. If the injury is clearly serious then urgent vet attention is required.
Strains or sprains – injuries to the soft tissues of your dog’s leg, such as the muscle, tendon or ligaments, can also cause limping. If it’s a simple strain, the limp and associated pain should soon resolve after some rest and limited activity. However, there are some ligament injuries which can cause more serious limping and will need vet attention.
Torn ligament – torn ACL or cruciate ligament is a more serious limp-causing injury which is often seen in larger, active dogs. The ACL helps to keep a dog’s leg stabilized and so if damaged, will affect the way they walk, with a sudden, non-weight bearing limp a classic symptom. If you suspect a torn cruciate ligament, make an appointment with your vet so your limping dog can get the appropriate treatment.
Bone disease – in some dogs, disease in their bone can affect their legs and the way they walk. There are three main bone diseases which can cause limping in your dog:
- Osteochondrosis Dissecans – this condition is common in young large or giant dog breeds which affects the back of the humerus, causing immature cartilage tissue which thickens over time. This abnormally thick cartilage receives insufficient nutrients, leading to the deeper cells to die, leaving pockets between the bone and the cartilage. These fissures can lead to pain, causing your dog to limp.
- Panosteitis – another condition affecting large breeds, panosteitis is common in young dogs between five and 12 months and causes fibrosis in the bones, leading to intermittent lameness in one or both fore legs.
- Bone cancer – while not common in dogs, osteosarcoma can affect their legs by destroying tissues in the bones, weakening their legs as well as compressing on nerves, causing a dog to limp or walk with an uncharacteristic, unsteady gait. If you suspect bone cancer in your dog, see your vet as soon as possible.
- Hypertrophic Osteodystrophy – this bone disease that occurs in fast-growing large and giant breed dogs as puppies and is caused by decreased blood flow to the bones. This means their bones don’t harden properly, leading to pain and lameness.
Joint disease – certain canine health conditions can gradually cause wear and tear on your dog’s joints and musculoskeletal system, leading to varying degrees of lameness and limping. The most common joint conditions that can affect your dog include hip dysplasia, where the hip joint doesn’t fit the socket correctly, causing rubbing and wear, leading to pain and limping. You dog may also develop arthritis in his joints as he ages, causing inflammation and pain. Other joint conditions that can cause limping include patellar luxation and intervertebral disk disease. Take a look at our review of the best dog joint supplements for more info.
What to do if Your Dog Has a Limp
If your dog presents with a limp – whether gradual or sudden onset – and you have examined their limb to rule out the need to go to the emergency vet, there are some things you can do to help relieve their lameness and any associated pain:
- If your pet has a minor wound (deep cuts or a wound that won’t stop bleeding need to be treated by your vet asap), clean it with gentle soap and lukewarm water, then use an antiseptic ointment if required.
- Minor swelling of the leg, joint or paw can be treated with ice wrapped in a cloth for around 15 minutes. If the swelling doesn’t go down after 12-24 hours, seek veterinary advice.
- Use clean tweezers to carefully remove any lodged objects such as a splinter, then gently clean the site. If you cannot remove the foreign body, book at visit to the vet for further inspection.
- In most cases of minor limping there will be no obvious cause or injury, so your best course of action is to rest and confine your pet to allow their leg to recover. That means avoiding stairs, jumping or running and ideally crate rest. If their limp does not improve within 24-48 hours, a trip to the vet for a full assessment is advised.
- Never give your dog any of your human pain meds or over-the-counter painkillers such as Ibuprofen, aspirin or naproxen as they can be toxic for dogs. Only ever give your pooch vet-prescribed, canine-safe medication.
When to See Your Vet
For more serious limping or lameness clearly caused by trauma or injury, always seek emergency vet intervention as soon as possible. For other limps, waiting an hour or so to see if it naturally resolves itself, can be the most appropriate course of action.
However, when it comes to lameness in your dog, the best advice is to be safe rather than sorry. So, if you are in any doubt about your pet and the cause of his limping, always seek professional advice so you can get him healthily and happily back on to all four paws.
- Why Is My Dog Limping? – American Kennel Club