Lameness (limping) is one of the most common reasons that dogs need to visit the vet. With four paws and boundless energy, dogs occasionally hurt themselves. However, injuries aren’t the only reason your dog might be limping.
Whether your dog is suddenly limping or has been having issues with the way he walks off and on for a few weeks, here’s how to determine whether a vet visit is necessary and what you can do to help your limping dog.
What Is Lameness in Dogs?
Lameness or limping is the abnormal gait (walk) that occurs when a dog puts less weight on one or more paws. Limping in dogs is almost always an attempt to reduce pain, and that’s worth taking seriously. It’s important for your dog to be seen or treated by a vet to address the root cause of the pain.
Lameness in dogs can come on suddenly, such as when they get something stuck between their foot pads but can also be a sign of more serious events, such as a torn ligament or a broken bone. In other cases, it can come on gradually, as with dogs who develop osteoarthritis. Sudden-onset limping on one leg is more likely to be caused by injury, whereas gradual-onset lameness is usually caused by a longer-term disease process such as osteoarthritis.
Foreign Bodies, Cuts, and Sores
For most young, healthy dogs who have a limp, some sort of paw or foot injury, possibly with infection following, is often the reason. When skin is damaged, it’s possible for infection to follow.
Bleeding is often the first sign of such an injury, but sometimes limping is the only red flag to alert pet parents that something is amiss. This type of limp also comes on suddenly and tends to get a little worse as inflammation and possible infection set in. If your dog is suddenly limping and licking his paw, it’s likely that a foreign body, cut, or abrasion is to blame, reach out to your vet for an investigation.
Another common cause of limping in dogs is torn ligaments. Dogs can either fully tear or partially tear a ligament, which can cause them to start limping suddenly, and often severely.
A cruciate tear in the hind limbs (the most common torn ligament) usually occurs in medium- to large-breed dogs, especially those who are overweight. With this sort of injury, dogs tend to go very lame immediately, rarely putting pressure on the foot, or “toe touching” at the most. This type of injury needs to be managed carefully, so pet parents should visit the vet as soon as possible.
Patella (kneecap) luxation usually affects small dogs and is thought to be a genetic problem. In certain breeds, kneecap is only held loosely in place, so it occasionally slips out to one side, stopping the knee from bending correctly.
Many dogs that are affected will appear to have an intermittent limp. The knee is rarely painful or swollen, so this is a lameness that often goes ignored by pet parents. Getting it fixed at a young age may reduce damage to joint structures and risk of osteoarthritis in the affected knee. Whether your dog should undergo surgery depends on severity and other factors, so speak to your vet, who can advise on the best approach.
Of course, broken, and fractured bones can also cause a noticeable limp. Affected dogs will often not bear any weight on the injured leg at all. If you suspect a break or fracture, please take your pet to an emergency vet immediately.
However, be aware that not all fractures are so obvious. A limp may not be as noticeable in dogs with fractured toes or small stress fractures when compared to a dog with a fully broken bone. Usually, the area will be painful when it is touched and pressed. Your vet will need to take an X-ray to confirm the diagnosis.
Although thankfully less common than the other causes discussed so far, bone cancer is another possible reason for limping—one that’s important not to ignore. Osteosarcoma is extremely painful and affected dogs will get progressively worse until they can’t bear any weight at all. Sometimes, affected dogs go from a mild limp to completely lame suddenly. Pet parents may also see a bony swelling at the site of the tumor or notice their pet licking at the area more than usual. Your vet will discuss your pet’s options if bone cancer is determined to be the cause of your dog’s limping.
Hip, Elbow, or Shoulder Dysplasia
Dysplasia means “abnormal growth,” and in this case refers to the fact that, in some dogs, the joint doesn’t form properly when the dog is growing. Dysplasia is most commonly diagnosed in dogs that are 6 to 18 months. Often large-breed dogs are affected, but it can affect dogs of any size. If your dog is a breed that has a higher risk of dysplasia, your vet can recommend an exercise and growth plan. Dysplasias are one of the most common causes of osteoarthritis. How quickly signs begin will vary by individual dog. Early signs to watch out for include a strange sitting posture, shortened length of stride, and hip swaying
Osteoarthritis is the most common joint disease in dogs, affecting an estimated 25% of dogs1. Joint abnormalities such as dysplasia are one of the most common causes, therefore the disease often starts at a young age. It can also be caused by joint injuries, which can occur at any age. It’s a progressive disease, which means the signs get worse over time, so it’s important to watch out for it and spot it early. The signs may be inconsistent, but in general start subtly and gradually worsen over time. By the time your dog is limping, arthritis is usually quite severe, so don’t wait for a limp to get him checked out by your vet.
What to Do if Your Dog Is Limping
If you notice your dog has a limp, ask yourself has it come on suddenly, or has it been steadily getting worse and you’re only now noticing it? You should also assess the severity of the limp: Is your dog unable to bear weight on the limb, or is it more of a subtle change in the way he’s walking? Next, consider your dog’s behavior: Is he still happy, bright, and playful? Or is he under the weather, depressed, lethargic, or licking at the area? Finally, as long as your dog is amenable, have a look at the limb: is it swollen or bleeding? Can you identify where it is sore?
If you have identified an easily solved problem, such as a small object between the paw pads, that is easy to remove and has not caused any skin damage, a visit to the vet might not be required. However, make sure the area is clean and check it regularly to make sure that there really is no problem (such as an infection).
It might not be necessary to take your dog to the clinic immediately if:
- Your dog is only slightly lame, and the change has only been seen within the last 24 hours
- Your dog is young, fit, and active with normal behavior, including eating and drinking normally
- Your dog isn’t paying attention to the limb by licking or chewing it
- And you can’t see any sign of a problem when you examine the limb
- If you don’t feel comfortable making this decision on your own, you can always call your vet for advice. Some vets will even be able to check your dog using a video call to assess whether he needs to be seen. Don’t delay contacting your veterinarian if:
- Your dog has a limp that doesn’t go away
- Your dog’s pain has been gradually worsening
- Your dog’s limp is severe, and he is unable to bear weight
- Your dog is licking, chewing, or otherwise bothering his foot
- You can see a wound or sore
- Seeing the vet is essential to get proper diagnosis or treatment.
- Lascelles D. Joint Pain in Pet Dogs and Cats. International Association for the Study of Pain (IASP) Fact Sheet. 2016.