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Why Is My Dog Limping

A brindle dog looking off camera as he is outside

Lots of dogs have very playful, energetic personalities. Your dog might be the kind who likes to run across the house, zipping from room to room, or maybe he loves zooming across the yard every morning when you open your door to let him outside. Running and jumping may be signs that your dog is happy, but what does it mean if your dog starts limping? Is he in pain? And how can you help him feel better? 

When did the limping start?

In order to help determine the cause of your dog’s limping, it is best to remember as many details as possible. Limping can be very sudden or acute, like when pain is caused by a traumatic injury, or it can have a very gradual onset. A common cause of acute limping is when your dog is running and then yelps or cries out, indicating that he might have twisted something or stepped wrong on his paw. Dogs with gradual onset limping usually have a chronic underlying problem that can be due to an old injury or can even be inherited based on your dog’s breed. Degenerative joint disease is another example of a problem that can lead to gradual onset limping. Early intervention is important for all dogs who limp.

When do I go to the vet?

If your dog seems to be in pain, or if you are ever concerned about your dog’s well-being, then make sure to contact your veterinarian right away. Limping is definitely a sign of pain, and if there are any obvious injuries such as fractures, exposed bone, swelling, or a dangling limb, then this warrants a trip to the emergency room. If there are no external injuries and the limping is very sudden or lasts longer than a few minutes, then make an appointment for the same day. If your dog’s limp has a very gradual onset, then an appointment within the next 24 to 48 hours is ideal. 

What could have caused my dog’s limp?

a malinois running in the sand holding a yellow frisbee

There are many possible causes for your dog’s limping. Paw injuries are one of the most common causes. If your dog has a cut on his paw, then he may favor the leg and lick his paw frequently. It is also possible for dogs to have something stuck in their paws (e.g. burs from a sticker bush), and insect bites may also cause paw discomfort. Allergies and infections can sometimes cause enough swelling and irritation to result in limping.

Infected or swollen joints can result in limping. Certain diseases like Lyme disease can affect the joints and cause painful inflammation. Infections of the joint are rare but possible. Congenital diseases like hip dysplasia and elbow dysplasia cause joint malformations that result in chronic inflammation and pain. In severe cases, these congenital diseases require surgery in order to treat them. Inter-vertebral disk disease, which affects the soft cushion between the vertebrae in your dog’s spine, can sometimes cause limping, but neurologic issues like limb weakness or paralysis are more common clinical signs.

In cases of bone disease, infections can cause lameness due to pain. Dogs can also develop bone cysts or aggressive bone tumors like osteosarcomas that can spread to other parts of the body. Young puppies can develop bone diseases like panosteitis, which causes pain in the long bones of the body. The cause for panosteitis is unknown but is usually self-limiting and resolves when puppies get older.

Traumatic injuries can cause problems like fractured or dislocated bones, and in severe cases, trauma can cause spinal injuries. Trauma can also cause damage to tendons and ligaments, and sometimes mild sprains develop that can improve with medication and rest. However, torn cruciate ligaments in the knee are more degenerative in nature than they are traumatic. A torn cruciate ligament can cause toe-touching or non-weight bearing lameness, and the tear can occur with simple movements like running and jumping. Large breed dogs have a higher risk for torn cruciate ligaments.

What happens next?

After obtaining a thorough medical history, your veterinarian will perform a physical examination and will include an orthopedic evaluation as well. In some cases, mild sedation may be necessary in order to facilitate the movements necessary to diagnose a torn cruciate ligament or hip dysplasia. X-rays are also recommended to rule out fractures, inflammation, bone disease, and other problems.

How is limping treated?

Treatment will vary based on exam and test findings. In most cases where a simple sprain or soft tissue injury is suspected, your veterinarian will recommend plenty of rest for one to two weeks. This means that your dog should not be allowed to jump on and off of furniture, and he should not be allowed to run off of his leash. Instead, he will need to be walked on a leash while in your yard, and you may need to minimize walks through the neighborhood until he is feeling better.

Medications like NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) are typically recommended because they help relieve pain and inflammation. Never give any of your own pain medications to your dog unless your veterinarian says that it is safe to do so. Human medications like ibuprofen and naproxen are highly toxic to dogs and should be avoided completely. If your dog is difficult to rest, i.e. he is very high-energy and will not remain still, then your veterinarian may recommend a mild sedative or anti-anxiety medication to take home.

Longer-term problems like chronic injuries or dysplasias greatly benefit from joint supplements containing ingredients like glucosamine and chondroitin, and omega-3 supplements are great because they have a mild anti-inflammatory effect for your dog. There is abundant anecdotal evidence to support the use of CBD oil in these dogs as well. CBD oil can help with inflammation, anxiety, and pain.

Depending on your dog’s illness, he may benefit from cold laser therapy, swim or water therapy, acupuncture, and physical therapy if he is still experiencing pain and discomfort. It is also important that your dog has an ideal body condition and is not overweight. In cases with complicated fractures, chronic pain from ligament tears, hind limb paralysis, and other orthopedic or neurologic issues, your veterinarian may recommend surgery for your dog. Smaller or uncomplicated fractures can sometimes heal with splinting and rest.

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There are numerous causes for limping in dogs, and prolonged limping is a sign that your dog needs your help. There are many excellent medical therapies available for lameness, and in rare cases, surgical intervention may be necessary. It is best to schedule an appointment with your veterinarian right away, and she will help you figure out the most effective way to get your dog back to happy and playful as soon as possible!

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Meet The Author

Dr. Erica Irish

Dr. Erica Irish

Erica has worked in the veterinary field since 2006, starting out as a veterinary technician before graduating from the UF College of Veterinary Medicine in 2013. As a general practitioner in an animal hospital, she has many interests and is especially interested in dermatology, cardiology, internal and integrative medicine

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