Lame tabby cat looking at camera

Lameness in cats

Cats can become lame for many reasons. Cats may develop an abscess from a cat bite, a wound, sprain, fracture or a sting in the paw. Some lameness can also be caused by joint problems in the leg. Here you can read more about symptoms, diagnosis and treatment of lameness in cats - and when it's time to contact a vet!

This article was written by a FirstVet vet


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Symptoms of lameness in cats

Cats may show lameness when they are painful. They may not want to fully stand on the affected leg, they may only use three legs to move around, or they may not want to move around at all. They may also lick a specific area or the leg that hurts.

It is important to understand that if your cat is lame as this usually shows that they have pain somewhere. Many cats that are in pain also withdraw, becoming irritated and are more generally not themselves, or lose their appetite. Chronic lameness can lead to reduced generalised condition, or loss of muscle on the affected leg.

Why is my cat lame?

Here are some examples of what can cause lameness in cats:

  • Soft tissue injuries: muscles, tendons and ligaments, for example, bruises and cruciate ligament injuries
  • Wounds: cuts, foreign bodies and cat fights often cause injuries that penetrate the skin. Bite wounds are often puncture wounds, and these cats often develop a painful infection leading to an abscess. Read more about cat bites here
  • Bone injuries: fractures, cracks and new bone formation
  • Joint diseases: osteoarthritis is chronic inflammation of the joint(s) and is common in aging cats. They may start resting or sleeping more, and avoid jumping up and down from surfaces. You may notice your cat moving more stiffly or becoming gradually lame. They may increasingly struggle to wash themselves properly so their fur may not be well groomed
  • Claws: damage can be associated with a torn nail, or nail bed injury or infection
  • Neurological diseases: this can cause cats to become lame, or unable to move normally. The cat may also appear wobbly or uncertain in it’s movement
  • Paralysis: sudden onset paralysis of the hind legs sometimes occurs in cats. Often caused by a blood clot in the aortic artery that provides the blood supply to both hind legs. This is called an aortic thromboembolism (ATE). These cases are very acute and the cat should be taken to a vet immediately for examination

Diagnosis of lameness

If your cat is going to the clinic for a lameness assessment, it is helpful to starve the cat for six hours before the visit. They should continue to have free access to water. During the examination, sedative medication may be needed and this helps to reduce nausea and vomiting.

During the examination, the vet will ask for information about the cat’s history and whether they have had any similar problems in the past. The vet will carefully examine them for abnormalities and assess the cat’s movement. If the vet may recommend an x-ray or ultrasound scan if there is a risk of damage to the skeleton or joints. In some cases, an MRI or CT may also be recommended.

Treatment of lameness

Treatment of your cat’s lameness will depend on the cause. Abscesses often need to be lanced to allow the pus to drain, which also relieves the pressure and pain. In the case of fractures, surgery may be needed to stabilise the fracture under general anaesthetic, or splinting needed.

For osteoarthritis, there are several different treatment options, which together aim to relieve the pain and inflammation. These include keeping the cat at a healthy weight, to reduce strain on the joints, encouraging and maintaining regular exercise to maintain range of motion of the joints and promote a healthy weight.

Also read: Obesity in cats and How to do a Body Condition Score

When should I contact a vet?

Cats are good at hiding pain. If your cat is lame, it is a good idea to contact a vet for advice and assessment of the lameness. Gently and carefully check your cat all over for swellings, soreness and wounds. Until you visit the vet, keep your cat indoors and reduce the amount of movement they need to make. Older cats often get osteoarthritis in one or more joints and should be examined by a vet to avoid unnecessary pain.

Emergencies: if a cat is involved in an accident, develops an acute lameness, or has a deep wound or a wound close to a joint they should be seen by a vet immediately.

You can always book a video call with a vet at FirstVet if your cat is lame to get an initial assessment and advice about how to proceed!

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