Dogs are a lot like humans in many ways. They eat, drink, seek affection, and feel pain. And just like humans, they can sometimes experience injuries, such as sprained muscles, torn ligaments, broken bones, slipped discs, and soft tissue trauma. They can also experience limping, which is also sometimes called ‘canine lameness’.
When you notice a dog beginning to limp or behave in a lame manner, you can be certain it’s because he has hurt himself in some manner, or because something is hindering their normal range of motion somehow.
One thing you will want to observe right off the bat is whether your pet will place any pressure or weight on the offending limb. If they are refusing or unable to put their full weight on a particular limb, then something is wrong.
Figuring out what exactly is not always easy, because there are a wide range of ailments that can trigger limping in a canine. Unfortunately, dogs can’t just tell their owner what’s wrong. They can’t communicate if something hurts and where, or what they did that caused the hurt. This makes it a challenge for pet owners because you must try to figure it out for yourself.
Sudden and Gradual Onset Limping
Dogs typically experience two types of limping. On one hand, there is limping accompanied by a sudden onset, and on the other hand, there is limping accompanied by a gradual onset. As you can imagine, a sudden onset limp typically presents itself after your dog has experienced an injury or trauma to one or more limbs.
Gradual onset limping is usually related to other chronic underlying health issues, like cancer, dysplasia, or osteoarthritis. It doesn’t matter whether you notice your pet limping suddenly or you notice a gradual limp develop, it’s still important either way to have your dog assessed by your vet as soon as you can. This will help them to treat your dog more effectively going forward.
Causes of Dog Limping
There are a wide range of causes for dog limping, with the more notable causes including:
- Degenerative diseases (osteoarthritis)
- Injury and trauma
- Anatomic defects
Often the cause of your dog’s limping is something simple and relatively benign, like a foreign object stuck in his paw. This is especially true if your dog is outside often. Your dog is essentially running around ‘barefoot’ and they can just as easily receive a cut or get something stuck in between their toes as you can. Burrs, rocks, thorns, twigs and small sticks… all are things that your pup can step on. If they get lodged in their foot, they can hurt and trigger limping.
Insect or Animal Bites
Your dog may also be bitten by an insect or another animal. This too can cause limping and lameness. For instance, animals bitten from a tick carrying Lyme disease can suffer from limb failure. There are also some poisonous spiders whose venom can affect your dog’s ability to walk. If your dog is bit by another dog or another animal, unfortunately the puncture wounds can cause injury and trauma, especially to the joints. This too will cause your dog to limp.
Just like people, dogs can go overboard in the exercise department and overexert themselves. This results in experiencing sore muscles, which in turn can make them limp. Fortunately, this particular condition usually passes quickly.
Scar tissue can sometimes be a cause of limping. If your dog has ever experienced any kind of injury or surgery, scar tissue can form and create problems with range and mobility. This is more a gradual onset type of limp, however it’s not uncommon.
Ingrown or Overgrown Toenails
Sometimes your dog may get an ingrown or overgrown toenail that curls and cuts into the paw. This can cause limping and even require the help of your veterinarian to file it down or surgically remove the nail from where it’s digging into their skin. On the flip side, if you just sent your dog to the groomer and they come home limping, then your groomer may have clipped their nails a little too close for comfort.
An infection of a wound or cut, or an infection in the nail bed or skin can cause pain and make your dog limp too. It’s important that any infections be treated right away so that they do not spread or worsen.
Sometimes dogs suffer from a condition called panosteitis (also called wandering lameness) that presents with limping. It’s a condition that seems to affect large breed pups ages 5 to 12 months the most. Sort of like the growing pains that humans sometimes experience in their arms and legs, young dogs also experience it as they grow quickly and try to keep up with the demands of their body. Once the dog reaches a certain age, symptoms like limping tend to disappear.
Hip & Elbow Dysplasia
Hip and elbow dysplasia are health concerns that are commonly related to limping. Unfortunately, dysplasia is an inherited health issue, causing the joints to become loose.
Old age and osteoarthritis are common culprits when it comes to dogs with a limp. Obviously, dogs age much like people, and when they do, they just can’t move the way they used to. They can’t run and jump and play like a young, lively pup might, but they still often give it their best shot, even when they shouldn’t. Conditions like this can be managed with proper care, and any lameness that comes as a result should improve.
Nerve damage is also a common cause of limping. This is a health concern that is especially prevalent in dogs suffering from diabetes. When nerve damage occurs in a dog, it can cause them to limp or drag their foot on the ground.
Fractures, Broken Legs, & Other Injuries
Of course, fractures and broken legs can cause limping. The tough thing is that sometimes you won’t even know if a dog has suffered a fracture. However, if you suspect one, you should see your vet right away so they can do an x-ray.
Degenerative myelopathy is another culprit when it comes to dogs and limping. This is a disease of the spinal cord and can transform into full-on paralysis of your dog. You want to pay close attention and get your canine to the vet as soon as possible if you suspect anything of this nature.
It’s not uncommon for dogs to get tumors and lumps on their bodies. Most of them are benign, but sometimes they can also be cancerous. Bone cancer in particular can cause pain and limping and eventually death if it’s not treated.
What to Do When Your Dog is Limping
When you notice your dog is limping, the first thing you need to do is try to figure out which limb is affected, and where the pain seems to be originating from. Watch them walk around and observe closely. You should notice immediately if your dog is favoring one limb over another. Even if they still put their foot down to the ground, you should still be able to tell whether they are favoring it, because their head will go up every time the affected limb touches down and feels pressure.
After that you’re going to want to examine the sore limb. It may be wise to start by examining a limb that doesn’t hurt first. This will give you a frame of reference when it comes to how your dog responds to touch and pressure areas. Doing it like this can also help alleviate your dog’s anxiety, which most likely is slightly higher than normal now.
When you begin to examine your dog’s leg, you’ll want to start with their toes first. Examine their nails closely and make sure there is no splitting or cracking in the nail beds, and that no sensitive tissues are exposed. If your dog is bleeding anywhere then the area needs to be cleaned and bandaged properly. You may also consider taking them to the vet in case any other treatments are necessary as well.
Beginning with your dog’s feet, you’ll want to check out each toe one by one. Very gently wiggle them all around to check for injuries and pain.
Next you will want to examine the webbing between your dog’s toes. This is an easy area for your dog to injure, especially if your dog has walked over any kind of sharp objects. Remember that if you find any cuts in this area, you may need stitches as well as a stiff round of antibiotics to prevent infection.
Sometimes dogs pick up foreign objects like small rocks, gravel, thumbtacks, sand spurs, and a whole host of different things that can get wedged in between their toes and cause the area to become sore. However, once the foreign object is removed, the limp should resolve on its own.
If you happen to notice something like a mass or a cyst or anything else abnormal in between the toes, you should see your vet right away.
Next, you’ll want to examine the pads of your dog’s feet, because even though they are typically tough in texture, they can still be easily sliced and cut if they step on something sharp enough. The pads of your dog’s feet can also become sensitive due to walking outside on hot pavement, or they can develop things like warts, or become extremely hard, dry, and irritated because of chemical and dietary considerations.
Once you’ve done all that, you’ll want to examine your dog’s joints and just apply a very light pressure to see if your dog responds with discomfort. If your dog seems fine, you can move the limb around gently to mimic its range of motion. If all seems normal, you know the pain isn’t originating from a joint.
Finally, make sure you check out the bones, because any kind of bruise or fracture can result in limping. Look for swelling and signs of injury. Sometimes you may notice bleeding or something in the bone is not symmetrical. Compare the bone to a healthy leg if you need to be able to see a difference.
Treatment and Care for Dog Limping
Treatment is entirely dependent on what’s causing the limp in the first place. If your dog has experienced a trauma or injury, move the dog as little as possible. Crate them if need be. If your dog can ‘hobble,’ then it is probably not necessary to splint the leg. If there is heavy swelling or bleeding, a vet visit should be first priority.
Hot or cold compresses can be helpful in reducing swelling and inflammation, and if your dog’s limp seems to linger on longer than a 24-hour period, take them to the vet for an assessment. You can also ask your vet about medication for pain, as well as possible supplements that may help. Ultimately, rest and restricting movement for a few days is probably one of the best things you will be able to do for your dog until the lameness passes.