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Why Is My Dog Limping?

Aug 31, 2022

By Stephanie Gibeault

It’s scary when your dog begins to limp. How do you know what’s wrong or how to help if you can’t ask what happened? Well, there are many reasons dogs limp and not all of them are cause for emergency treatment. It can be as simple as stiff joints or a pulled tendon. But limping can also indicate a serious health issue like Lyme disease or cancer. So, it’s important to learn what to look for and when to head to the veterinarian.

What Causes Sudden Limping?

Limping can occur out of nowhere or develop slowly over time, and that can be diagnostically significant. Sudden limping usually means an injury has just occurred. It can be something minor that will resolve itself. Your pup might jump off the furniture and land wrong or step on a sharp stone. In that case, they should be back to normal in only a few minutes. Or your dog might strain a muscle, get stung by an insect, or injure their paw by cutting a pad or tearing a claw. That can take longer to heal.

Another cause of sudden limping is traumatic injury, such as being struck by a car or falling from a height. Your dog can dislocate a joint or break a bone, making it impossible for them to put their weight on that limb. A ligament sprain or rupture can lead to limping as well. If you didn’t see an injury occur but notice your dog limping out of the blue, check for other signs of trauma like blood or a fever. You can also examine the affected limb. Is it at an odd angle, is there an obvious break, or is there swelling? Also gently feel the limb to see if it’s hot. Any of these signs require an immediate trip to the emergency vet.

What Causes Progressive Limping?

On the other hand, limping can start subtle before it progresses to debilitating levels. In this case, the cause is usually not due to an immediate injury but to another underlying health condition. The condition might be directly related to the affected limb or a more general disease with limping as a symptom.

Diseases like osteoarthritis target a dog’s joints, making it painful for your pup to move. In the early stages, your pet might barely show signs as dogs tend to hide their pain. But as the disease progresses, it will become increasingly clear that your dog’s movement is hindered. Other diseases of the joints such as hip dysplasia, which affects the back legs, and elbow dysplasia, which affects the front legs, can cause limping too. Whereas arthritis is most often seen in older dogs, dysplasia can occur in puppies as well as adult dogs. Dogs can also suffer from osteosarcoma which is cancer of the bones. The more the cancer advances, the worse a limp can become.

Other illnesses impact your dog’s gait as part of a larger package of symptoms. For example, Lyme disease, which is a bacterial infection transmitted by ticks, can cause overall sickness as well as affect the organs or joints. In addition, anything that causes inflammation, such as an autoimmune disease, or illnesses that impact the nervous system, can lead to progressive limping.

dog limping on a walk

When Should You Take Your Dog to the Vet for a Limp?

With sudden onset limping, it’s often obvious if your dog has suffered a traumatic injury. If so, get your dog to an emergency vet immediately. If there is no sign of trauma, wait a few minutes to see if the limping clears up on its own. For example, many dogs with arthritis are stiff when they first get up from lying down. If the limp continues, book an appointment with your vet to discuss diagnosis and treatment. 

Although slow progressing limps are less dramatic than sudden limping, it’s still important to seek veterinary attention as soon as possible. Your vet can treat the underlying condition more effectively, whether it’s directly related to the joint or not, if they catch the illness early. Be prepared to give your vet a complete history of the limping behavior such as when it started and whether it comes and goes or is constant. Your vet might also conduct tests like blood work, radiographs, joint fluid analysis, or other lab tests to aid with correct diagnosis.

How Can You Treat Dog Limping?

There are many different approaches to ease your dog’s limping from medication and supplements to surgery and therapeutic ultrasound. It all depends on the underlying reason for the limp. For example, osteosarcoma will have a vastly different treatment plan from osteoarthritis. But in most cases, the goal is to ease pain and increase mobility. After your dog’s been diagnosed, speak to your vet about the options available for treatment. Hopefully, your dog will be comfortable walking and running in no time.

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