Cream lame dog lying on wooden floor

Lameness in dogs

Dogs can become lame for many reasons, such as a wound, insect sting, sprain or fracture. Other causes include joint problems, such as osteoarthritis. In this article we talk about symptoms, diagnosis and treatment of lameness in dogs - 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 dogs

As a pet owner, it is very important to understand if your dog is lame, as it is a sign that the dog is in pain. The level of lameness in dogs varies depending on the cause. Symptoms range from the dog looking slightly uneven in its stride, and not putting full weight on the leg, to holding the leg up and walking only on three legs because they do not want to put any weight on it (non-weight bearing). It is common for the dog to try and hide pain, so get to know when your dog is normal so that you can spot signs of lameness early.

Why is my dog lame?

There can be many different reasons why dogs can become lame. Some causes have a good prognosis, whilst others can be more serious.

Soft tissue injuries are a common cause of lameness, including muscles, tendons and ligaments. For example, cruciate ligament disease, luxating patellas and ligament injuries.

Another cause of lameness is damage to a bone, such as a crack, fracture, or new bone formation, which can occur with certain diseases. Many lamenesses are caused by joint problems, such as hip / elbow dysplasia, osteochondrosis or osteoarthritis. If your dog is lame, check their paws thoroughly as they often get wounds or foreign bodies, such as nail injuries, thorns and sores in this area.

When to contact a vet?

If your dog is lame, you should contact a vet for advice. Until the dog is examined, keep their exercise to a minimum and use a lead for short toileting visits. Avoid them playing and using the stairs, jumping on and off the sofa, and jumping in and out of the car, which could make the problem worse.

It is important to examine lameness and find the cause so that the right treatment can be provided and the dog is not in prolonged pain. It is especially important that lameness in young dogs are examined promptly. Joint diseases that are detected at an early stage will have better outcomes and reduce the risk of long term damage.

Older dogs often get osteoarthritis in one or more joints. Osteoarthritis is progressive chronic inflammation of affected joints and often starts during middle-age. Typical signs of osteoarthritis are that the dog may be stiff or lame after rest and / or exertion, but once they "warm up" then the lameness becomes less visible. These dogs should also be examined by a vet as there are several important things that you can do to help your dog at home: weight loss, managed exercise and dietary supplements, together with prescribed pain medication. As dogs get older they do not have to walk around in pain. Together, these factors will help to relieve the pain and inflammation, and slow the progression of the disease.

Read more: Osteoarthritis in dogs

Treatment - what happens at the vet?

If your dog needs to visit a vet for lameness, it is useful to starve the dog ahead of your visit. A sedative may be needed during the examination or for diagnostic imaging. Sometimes, a general anaesthetic is needed for more x-rays and more advanced imaging, such as an MRI / CT scan. Your dog can drink water up until their visit.

During the examination, the vet will carefully examine the dog, comparing all the limbs. The vet may ask you to walk and / or possibly run in a straight line with your dog on a lead to assess their movement.

If the vet suspects damage to bones of soft tissues, they may suggest x-rays or an ultrasound scan. In some cases, an MRI or CT scan may be advised. It may be necessary to perform a keyhole surgery (arthroscopy) of a joint to be able to identify the cause of the lameness.

Get advice, treatment or a referral from FirstVet

You can always get help from a vet at FirstVet if you feel unsure about your dog's symptoms. Here you can book a video call with a vet at FirstVet to get an initial assessment of your animal.

Please note: If your dog is involved in a trauma or an accident and is severely lame or has obvious serious injuries, such as large wounds or open fractures, or injuries close to a joint, contact your veterinary clinic immediately for an emergency assessment.

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