Dogs are relatively athletic creatures who love to run, play, and wiggle with delight, so seeing them limp can be heartbreaking. Limping (i.e., lameness) in dogs has many possible causes, and to address their lameness, you should schedule a veterinary visit. Our Juanita Hills Animal Hospital veterinarians use specific examination techniques and other diagnostics to narrow down the reason for your dog’s limping—and determine the most effective treatment.
A dog’s limp can start suddenly (i.e., acute), or can be chronic or recurrent. Your dog may limp on any one leg or multiple legs at once, or the limping may shift among their legs. Canine lameness severity can range from mild weight shifting, to keeping all pressure off the painful limb. Forelimb lameness can be more difficult to identify than hindlimb lameness. However, your veterinarian can usually determine which leg is affected by watching your pet walk and performing a complete orthopedic examination. Our Juanita Hills Animal Hospital team describes the most common canine lameness causes.
#1: Bone or soft tissue injury in dogs
An active dog is prone to injuries as a result of inadvertently stepping in a hole, changing directions too quickly, or jumping awkwardly. Some dogs are genetically predisposed to bone or soft tissue injury. Toe and limb fractures are common, as are knee ligament tears. Injuries can happen acutely as a result of moving in a certain way, or because of significant trauma, such as a vehicle collision. Some dogs develop chronic overuse syndromes that create microtrauma over time.
#2: Nail or paw pad injury in dogs
Torn nails are extremely common, exposing the sensitive nerve and blood supply inside. Paw pads may crack, tear, or slough from pavement burns or rough terrain, or when an inactive dog who has soft, uncalloused pads becomes a weekend warrior.
#3: Developmental bone and joint diseases in dogs
Some dogs are born with abnormally formed hip or elbow joints (i.e., dysplasias) that lead to limping and pain as they age. Loose kneecaps (i.e., luxating patellas) are a common cause of intermittent lameness in small breeds. Young, large-breed dogs can develop pain in their long bones during growth spurts (i.e., panosteitis), or have abnormally formed joint cartilage (i.e., osteochondritis dissecans).
#4: Osteoarthritis or intervertebral disc disease in dogs
Middle-aged and older dogs commonly experience arthritis caused by wear and tear, but arthritis can occur in young dogs who have an injury history or a developmental disease. A dog with intervertebral disc disease (IVDD) experiences spinal pain and nerve pressure from protruding discs, which can also lead to abnormal gait, especially forelimb lameness.
#5: Bacterial or fungal infection in dogs
Tick-borne bacterial disease, most commonly Lyme disease, often results in shifting-leg lameness and joint swelling. Systemic fungal infections (i.e., Valley fever, histoplasmosis) are less common, but these conditions are life-threatening and may spread to a dog’s bones or joints. Although possible, isolated bacterial joint infections are also uncommon.
#6: Autoimmune disease in dogs
The most common immune disease affecting dogs’ joints is autoimmune polyarthritis. When this disease is present, the body mistakenly aims an immune response at healthy joint tissues, causing swelling and limping in multiple joints—all at the same time.
#7: Cancer in dogs
Bone cancer (i.e., osteosarcoma) is the most common neoplastic disease to cause canine lameness, but any tumor affecting nerves, muscles, or soft tissues could also potentially cause limping.
#8: Nervous system disease in dogs
Progressive nerve disorders, such as degenerative myelopathy (DM), may result in limb weakness that causes limping or toe dragging.
Dog limping diagnosis
To determine the reason your dog is limping, your veterinarian will perform a thorough physical and orthopedic examination to localize your dog’s pain. To diagnose your dog’s lameness accurately, your veterinarian—or a referred veterinary orthopedic specialist—may order the following diagnostics:
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or computed tomography (CT)
- Blood work
- Urine tests
- Joint tap
Treatments for limping dogs
Treatment for limping depends on the specific diagnosis. To eliminate a bacterial or fungal infection’s causative organism, your dog may require long-term medical treatment. Cancer often requires a combination of surgery, chemotherapy, and/or radiation. An autoimmune disease requires immune-suppressing medications. Depending on your dog’s specific orthopedic or neurologic condition, your veterinarian may treat them with any of the following:
- Rest with ice or heat on the affected limb
- Anti-inflammatory and pain medications
- Joint health supplements
- Physical therapy
- Alternative therapies (e.g., acupuncture, chiropractic)
- Laser therapy
- Regenerative medicine (i.e., stem cell therapy, platelet-rich plasma injections)
- Assistive devices (e.g., harness, sling, cart)
What to do if your dog is limping
If your dog starts limping suddenly, give them a few minutes—or hours if they tend to be overly dramatic— to rest and determine if the problem improves or goes away. Check your dog’s nails and paw pads for injuries or a foreign material, such as a thorn. If you don’t see an obvious cause, the limp is mild to moderate, and your dog is acting relatively normal otherwise, call your veterinarian for their next available appointment, and in the meantime, encourage your dog to rest. Visit a veterinary urgent care or emergency facility if your dog exhibits the following concerning signs:
- Bleeding or wounds
- Obvious fracture or deformity
- Significant limb or joint swelling
- Fever, lethargy, or poor appetite
- Known trauma, such as being struck by a vehicle
Limping can sideline your dog from activities they enjoy, but proper diagnosis and treatment can restore their function and comfort. If your dog is limping or you have questions about their lameness diagnosis or treatment, schedule a visit with our Juanita Hills Animal Hospital team.