When a dog is becoming less able to put weight on a limb, or is losing the normal mobility and function of a limb, he walks with a limp.
Limping in dogs usually indicates a structural problem, pain, or weakness in the affected leg.
Limping in dogs can be sudden, or it can be chronic. 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, cuts in the pad, 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
If your dog suddenly limps, it’s possible that he has injured one of his legs or paws. The causes may be:
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.
If the dog limps because of sprains or strains, the limping can last for days or even weeks. In most cases, the dog can bear some weight on the affected leg.
Paw injuries, such as a cut, can be painful and the dog usually will lick the injured paw constantly.
If there is infection, 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.
Broken Toe Nail
A broken toe nail can also be very painful to the point where the dog has to walk with a limp in order not to put weight on the affected toe. If your dog has a broken toe nail and there is still a piece of nail loosely attached to the toe, you may be tempted to trim it off with clippers, but be careful. It could be so painful for your dog that he might even bite!
The best solution is to wrap your dog’s paw loosely with a towel and get him to the vet right away.
Bone fractures can also cause limping in dogs due to the pain caused. If your dog has a broken bone, take him to the vet without delay.
Dislocations usually are the results of 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.
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 go away 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
In addition to injuries, some diseases can also cause canine limping and lameness, such as:
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. The swollen leg may be swollen, and 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
Degenerative joint problems such as osteoarthritis are 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.
A more serious condition that can cause dog limping is bone tumors (osteosarcomas), which tend to occur more often in large-breed dogs.
If there is a firm mass or swelling in a limp, with or without signs of inflammation, it may indicate a bone tumor. Pressing on the tumor can cause varying degrees of pain.
Hypothyroidism in dogs can also cause joint pain – sometimes rather severe.
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.
One or more joints may become swollen and painful to the touch. The lameness may last for a few days, but 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 and Treatment
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, but 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.
Treatment depends on the underlying cause, which may just be home rest for a few days or it may require more invasive treatment, such as surgery.