Lameness in dogs, or dog limping, refers to a dog’s diminished ability to put weight on a limb or a decrease in the normal mobility and function of a limb. Canine limping indicates a structural problem, pain, or weakness in the affected leg.
Occasional sudden lameness is most often caused by an injury, such as a cut on the paw, a torn nail, or muscle strain.
If you find your dog limping, the first thing to do is to locate the site of pain or problem.
Dog Limping – Where Does It Hurt?
First, try to determine which leg is involved. A dog usually holds up the paw or puts less weight on the affected leg. He usually takes shorter steps on a weak or painful limb. His head bobs as his weight comes down on the affected leg.
Once you have identified which leg is the cause of his limping, try to determine the specific site of the problem. Take a look at the paw pad and between the toes. Look for injuries such as sprains, pad lacerations, broken nails, and puncture wounds.
If you cannot find anything wrong with his paw, feel carefully and gently the whole leg from the toes up. Apply gentle pressure to see if any place is tender or swollen.
If you are not sure whether anything is abnormal, compare the affected leg with the other normal one. See if the affected leg is any different.
Then focus on the joints. Flex and extend all the joints from the toes up to the shoulder. Pay attention to see if there is any stiffness or lack of easy movement. Joint pain is evident if the dog tries to pull his leg free or cries out in pain when you try to flex the joint.
By doing the above, you will be able to locate the site of pain or problem. Next, try to determine what causes the limping. Below are some common causes of dog lameness and limping.
Possible Causes of Dog Limping – Injuries
- Sprains and Strains: These are rather common especially among active dogs. The dog limps suddenly and the site is often swollen, tender, and sometimes bruised. Lameness caused by sprains and strains can last for days or even weeks. In most cases, the dog can bear some weight on the affected leg.
- Paw Injuries: Paw injuries, such as lacerations, can be painful and the dog usually will lick the injured paw constantly. If the wound has become infected, the area will become red, warm, and tender. There may even be pus coming out from the wound. As the infection worsens, the limp gets steadily worse as well.
- Bone Fractures: Bone fractures can also cause limping in dogs due to the pain caused.
- Dislocations: Dislocations usually are caused by car accidents or falls from a considerable height. Dislocated joints cause sudden severe pain and the dog is unable to bear any weight at all on the affected leg. You may see some degree of deformity in the leg – the elbow or knee may be bent, with the leg pointing either toward or away from the body.
- Ruptured Ligament: Another cause of dog limping is a ruptured ligament in the stifle joint (knee joint). This happens very often to young, active and energetic dogs. The sudden onset of lameness in a rear leg suggests a rupture. The lameness may subside with rest, but may recur with exercise.
- Spinal Cord Injuries: Spinal cord injuries are usually caused by car accidents, falls, or gunshot wounds. The dog may suffer from neck or back pain immediately after the injury. He will limp, stumble and develop fecal or urinary incontinence. One or more limbs will be weak but without pain.
Non-Injury Causes of Dog Limping
Canine limping and lameness can also be caused by diseases. Some common diseases that cause dog limping include:
- Inherited Bone and Joint Diseases: Dogs with inherited bone and joint diseases are usually young or middle-aged. These types of diseases come on gradually. Swelling can usually be seen on the affected leg. The limping gets worse with time. Examples of inherited bone and joint diseases are hip dysplasia (a common cause of rear 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: Aka arthritis or osteoarthritis, this type of joint disease is most the common cause of lameness in older dogs. Usually, the limping is worse when the dog gets up and improves when he starts walking around.
- Bone Tumors: A more serious condition that can cause dog limping is bone tumors (osteosarcomas), which tend to occur more often in large-breed dogs. Bone tumors are evidenced by a firm mass or swelling with or without signs of inflammation. Pressing on the tumor can cause varying degrees of pain.
- Hypothyroidism: Hypothyroidism in dogs can also cause joint pain – sometimes rather severe pain can be seen. 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: Lyme disease, transmitted through the bite of a tickinfected by the bacteria Borrelia burgdorferi, can cause sudden onset of lameness. One or more joints may become swollen and painful to the touch. The lameness may last for a few days. However, sometimes the limping will become chronic and will last for months. Other symptoms of Lyme disease include fever, appetite loss, weight loss, and lethargy.
Diagnosis of Dog Limping
If your dog has been limping for over two days and you are unable to identify the underlying cause, it is essential to take him to the vet for a proper diagnosis.
Diagnosis is made using one or more of the following:
- X-ray: To determine if there are any fractures or dislocation.
- Bone Scan (Nuclear scintigraphy): These scans are useful in diagnosing bone cancers. However, they can only be performed at medical centers and schools of veterinary medicine.
- CT Scan or MRI: These scans are useful in diagnosing tendon, ligament, and muscle damage.