image of a limping pet

Why Is my Pet lame/Limping?

Dr. Tim Kirby MVBGpCertEqPMRCVS

Lameness/Limping is a common occurrence in both dogs and cats, and something we see daily in veterinary practice. Lameness is a sign of something underlying as opposed to being a disease/condition in of itself.

There are a multitude of reasons why your pet may be lame, or you notice a limp, we have covered some of the more common reasons below, but if you have any queries or would like some professional veterinary advice, feel free to contact us at petbond or arrange a visit with your own veterinarian.

How do I know if my pet is lame?

Some owners find it easier than others spotting their pets’ lameness. Likewise, some pets are better than others at hiding or concealing their lameness (cats in particular!) Lameness can be both subtle and intermittent, and identifying it can present difficulties. Here are some common signs which can suggest your pet is lame and has an underlying physical discomfort which may warrant veterinary attention.

  • Limping (both weight bearing and non-weight bearing)
  • Painful response when handling/touching the affected limb(s) – can include aggression. – swelling/bruising of affected limb(s)
  • Altered gait or posture – while walking/running, standing, or sitting.
  • Loss of muscle mass/muscle wastage.
  • Obvious deformity/misalignment to the limb.
  • Reluctance to use affected limb(s)/mobilise – e.g., climbing stairs, going on walks, jumping in/out of cars. – Dragging the limb(s)

Why is my pet lame/limping?

When it comes to lameness, owners often jump to and focus on the skeletal system, while the skeletal system is a common cause of lameness, it’s important to consider other bodily systems which can be involved in or contribute to lameness.

  • Skeletal system; bones and joints. (The most common cause of lameness).
  • Muscular system; Muscle strain, sprains, inflammation, and infection.
  • Neurological system; diseases/disorders of the nervous system and spinal disc disease.
  • Systemic; occasionally lameness is secondary to a primary issue elsewhere in the body.

As mentioned, there are a variety of reasons why your cat or dog may be lame. We can, to a degree, categorize the lameness into acute (sudden onset) or chronic (Long term). This helps us narrow down the potential causes. Some of the more common causes of acute and chronic lameness are listed below.

Sudden Onset/acute lameness.

Often acute lameness is caused by trauma, either external and/or internal. A couple of examples of acute injuries which could cause lameness would be.

  • A dog with a penetrating injury or laceration in the paw. E.g., glass.
  • A muscular or soft tissue strain resulting from exercise/overexertion e.g., cruciate ligament rupture.
  • Spinal disc disease.
  • A fracture from a road traffic accident.

Long term/chronic lameness

If the lameness is more long term or ‘chronic’ there a couple of other conditions which should be considered; – Degenerative joint disease e.g., osteoarthritis.

  • Ligament damage e.g., cruciate ligament tears (chronic and/or partial tears).
  • Muscular injuries; strains and sprains.
  • Spinal disc disease/neurological.

What will my Vet do?

When a dog or cat presents lame or with a limp, there are a number of questions your vet will likely ask to try and establish the cause and or source of the lameness.

  • Is the lameness sudden onset or a more chronic problem?
  • Which leg(s) are affected?
  • Is it worse at certain times e.g., after/during exercise or rest?
  • Is it getting progressively worse, remaining the same or improving?
  • History of trauma, trips of falls?
  • Any relevant medical history e.g., osteoarthritis, hip dysplasia, etc.
  • Has your pet received treatment for lameness and did it result in an improvement?

Once the area of lameness has been identified, potential causes narrowed down, and more severe conditions such as fractures and joint infections ruled out, your vet will instigate a treatment plan. First line approach to treatment in many lame cats and dogs will involve pain relief medications such as anti-inflammatories and rest.

If there is no improvement with first-line treatment approach, the next step is usually further diagnostics which can include any of the following: X-rays, CT, MRI, arthroscopy and/or biopsies. If your pet is undergoing further diagnostics, sedation or general anaesthesia may be required, this allows for a more in-depth physical examination of the affected limb(s) which can sometimes be difficult to achieve in a conscious painful animal.

My Pet is limping but doesn’t appear to be in pain?

If your pet is limping it is rare that there is no underlying physical discomfort or abnormality. Having said that, there are exceptions to this. This can also occur in animals with more chronic or long-term conditions, where the body has to a degree compensated for the reduced function of the affected limb(s).

The other point to note is that some pets will not react to pain with a classic ‘pain response.’ Cats are a great example of this. Many times, cats will arrive at the clinic off form, hiding and a little under the weather. After a full clinical exam, you may well find a localised source of pain which is resulting in the cat being out of sorts.

Another example would be the smaller breed dogs who always carry one hind limb up when out on a run, but owners report that it does not seem to cause any problems. This can be due to a condition called ‘patella luxation’’ where the kneecap pops in and out of its groove. This type of condition is referred to as a Mechanical lameness; normal function is affected rather than overt and significant pain, but the condition can progress, and some cases require surgical correction.

What can I do as an owner to help my pet?

Even with the more mild cases of lameness, we would always suggest seeking veterinary advice. Although it may be tempting to treat at home, DIY approaches can cause more harm than the original problem. Always avoid giving your pets human drug formulations unless directed by your veterinarian. This can be potentially fatal! particularly in cats.

In cases of severe injury such as suspected fractures, acute blood loss, severe swellings, deep     lacerations/penetrating injuries, and wounds – seek veterinary attention immediately!

Once you have sought vet advice, following directions as prescribed will ensure that your pet has the best chance of a quick return to health and function. Don’t overlook the importance of rest and restricting exercise. Diligence and commitment in the short term will get your pet back on all fours much faster in the long run.

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