Nothing to bark about! Causes of Limping in Dogs (and what you should do!)

Estimated Reading Time 8 minutes
Nothing to bark about! Causes of Limping in Dogs (and what you should do!)

Have you ever twisted your ankle stepping off a curb? Have you woken up with a sore or stiff back? Have you ever been bitten on the foot by a fire ant or stinging insect? Life, we know, is full of numerous dangers that can cause injury or discomfort and may cause a limp or abnormal use of a leg. How do you know if your dog’s injury is serious when they can’t talk to you about it? We've go the answers! Keep reading to learn all about limping in dogs.

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Knowing what to do (or more importantly, what NOT to do) is essential for any dog-lover seeking the best care for their pet. Follow below as we cover how to evaluate your dog when they’re showing signs of lameness or injury, and how you can best help your injured friend!

To assess your dog’s lameness, the first thing that you need to determine is whether you should seek immediate/emergency care or if your pet can wait for a regular appointment to be seen by a veterinary provider. Answering the following questions should help you determine what next steps you should take.

When did the injury occur?

A helpful piece of information when assessing any lameness in your pet is when the symptoms began. Did your dog have a slight limp that has worsened over the last week or month? Did it begin after your pet played outside in the yard? Did they yelp when they jumped off the couch?

Identifying to start of the lameness will be helpful for your vet and give them clues about what the most likely causes are. This will also aid recommendations for what type of tests or treatments are needed next. A timeline also helps determine if immediate care should be sought, or if it’s reasonable to wait for a regular appointment.

Based on the answer to when the injury began, the injury can be classified into one of two categories:

  • Acute lameness is something that hasn’t been going on for very long (started within minutes to 1-2 days). An acute injury that appears to be improving (such as limping that has improved in 1-2 hours) can likely wait for a regular vet appointment. Otherwise, most acute injuries warrant investigation urgently by a veterinary provider.
  • Chronic lameness is defined by symptoms that have lasted longer than 1-2 days (likely weeks to months to years) and include things such as hip dysplasia or osteoarthritis. Typically, limping that hasn’t progressed to “non-weight bearing” status and is chronic can wait for an appointment with your regular vet.

What are the common causes of limping on a back leg?

Most cases of dogs limping on one or both of their hind legs are traumatic in nature. Injuries that cause damage to different parts of the hind leg - the bone, cartilage, ligaments, muscle, tendon, and nerves - will cause pain and result in limping of the affected leg. Some cases of limping have very apparent causes.

A bone fracture or joint dislocation in one of the hind legs would often present with severe swelling on the fracture site and the leg will often appear angled.

Infection of the paws or toes of the hindlegs will cause lameness due to inflammation and pain. Infections under the skin, like abscesses, can also cause lameness.

Joint problems like hip dysplasia, arthritis, and knee problems are often categorized as gradual onset hindlimb lameness. The initial signs can be very subtle with very minimal changes in the dog’s gait, but if not treated or managed promptly, it will eventually cause enough pain that the dog will avoid using the affected leg.

Bone diseases or developmental problems in puppies can also cause hindlimb lameness. Osteosarcoma is a painful bone cancer that will also cause the affected dog to limp.

Can your dog walk on the leg?

Lameness is graded in severity by how much the dog uses their leg, ranging from bearing full weight on it with no signs of favoring it to not putting any weight on the limb at all. The less your pet is willing to use a leg, the more likely they are to need immediate or emergency attention by a vet. A dog that isn’t willing to use a leg should be seen right away.

Common causes of non-weight bearing lameness in dogs can include bone fractures, dislocations, snake bites, bee stings, ligament tears, or even bone tumors. A dog who refuses to put weight on an injured leg warrants urgent care to address their pain and treat the underlying problem. The quicker these types of problems are addressed, the more likely the pet is to receive care that returns them to full function.

What does the leg look like?

If your pet allows, examine the affected leg for signs that are different from the other limbs. If you have one on hand or in your first aid kit, it’s wise to place a muzzle briefly when touching or manipulating the painful leg to protect you from injury. Even our best-behaved companions can bite when they’re in pain or scared!

Carefully evaluate the paw (between toes, paw pad, toenails) for signs of wounds, swelling, heat, or foreign material (foxtails or grass awns). Move up the limb gently to see if there is swelling, redness, discharge, or heat. If the dog is unable to put weight on the leg, do NOT move the leg around as this may displace a fracture if present.

If wounds, swelling, bruising or significant redness are noted, it’s recommended your pet be seen urgently. Severe bruising is often associated with snake bites, trauma, or wounds that are infected. A pet that has external signs of significant injury such as swelling, bleeding, open wounds or bruising should be taken to a vet as soon as possible.

What can you do for your dog at home?

Although we have many over the counter (OTC) medications that we can safely take for pain, it is NOT recommended that you give your dog any pain medications that haven’t been prescribed by your vet for the injury. Most OTC medications such as Tylenol, ibuprofen, and aspirin are not considered safe or effective pain control by veterinarians. These medications can severely limit what options your vet can prescribe when your pet is seen.

OTC medications can cause problems such as ulcers, kidney failure, and liver injury when given to pets. It’s important that you also don’t give your pet any pain medications you have that were previously prescribed to the people in your home, as many drugs that are tolerated by humans are toxic to pets (similarly to the OTC options). Only give medications for pain as directed by your pet’s veterinarian.

Another treatment to avoid unless absolutely necessary is placing a bandage or splint at home. With incorrect technique or materials, a bandage can cut off blood supply and worsen the injuries. Splinting as well should only be done by a veterinary professional after diagnostics have been performed. The exception to this is in the case of active bleeding, where a bandage can be placed on the way to have your pet seen at the emergency clinic.

Something that you CAN do for your pet is place a cold pack on the affected leg to help with swelling or pain. You can also restrict your pet’s activity to a crate or small room with a comfortable bed to prevent them from further injury. Only walk them on a leash (no free running) to prevent accidental “ninja moves” when a squirrel catches their eye, or a neighbor walks by with another pet. Dogs often “forget” they’re in pain and may run on their painful leg or further hurt themselves if given the chance.

Cleaning an obvious wound or injury is also something you can do at home (if your pet allows) and if immediate care isn’t possible. Iodine based solution or chlorhexidine are common antiseptics used for wound cleaning but should be avoided near the face, eyes, and ears. You can clean gently with gauze from your first aid kit to help decrease contamination with bacteria and other harmful agents. For a detailed list of recommended first aid items, click here! You should also place a cone or Elizabethan collar if your pet has a wound that they’re able to lick before care can be sought.

What can I expect from my veterinarian?

Depending on your pet’s type of lameness (acute or chronic) and severity, you should expect your vet to thoroughly examine your pet as well as perform other tests such as x-rays or blood work. Your vet will evaluate your dog for signs of heat, swelling, joint abnormalities, fever, back pain, nerve deficits, and other exam abnormalities that may explain the limping. Your provider will likely prescribe pain medications appropriate for your pet’s age and overall health, as well as recommendations for treatment based on their detailed exam findings (such as antibiotics for an infection, surgery for a complicated fracture, etc.). In some cases, more advanced testing such as a biopsy, joint fluid evaluation, or advanced imaging such as an MRI or CT may be warranted.

With mild injuries like a sprain or soft tissue injury, the treatment may simply be to restrict activity. The important thing to remember is that there are many causes of limping in dogs and each warrants treatment tailored to the underlying problem. Your veterinary team will be focused on alleviating your dog’s pain and returning them to their normal activities (whether that be frisbee chasing or just leisurely walks) as quickly as possible!

Read more:

Pet First Aid: How to Treat Minor Wounds

How to Examine Your Pet at Home: A Step-By-Step Guide

At-Home Guide to Massage Therapy for Dogs

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