Limping (Lameness) in Cats

Key Takeaways

Limping, or lameness, is any disruption of bodily function that affects a cat’s ability to walk, run or jump normally. 

• Limping is caused by disease, injury, or infections

• Limping varies in severity, duration, and outcome depending on the underlying cause

Chronic limping, limping with no identifiable cause, and cats experiencing other symptoms with limping require prompt veterinary attention

• Diagnostic approaches include physical examination, blood work, diagnostic imaging and neurological examination

• Treatment options and prognosis depend on the diagnosis.

A Closer Look: What is Lameness in Cats?

Limping in a cat can indicate a variety of underlying causes. Some only require first aid treatment at home, such as minor cuts, scrapes, or bruises. Disruption to the toes, foot pads, joints, or bones of the legs as well as some neurological disorders make it difficult for the cat to walk properly. Wounds that develop severe swelling, redness, pain, or ooze pus require immediate veterinary care. If at-home treatment has not resolved limping within 2-3 days, veterinary care is highly recommended. Limping that continues for several days, has no easily identifiable cause, or is associated with other symptoms, requires prompt veterinary attention. Cats who are unable to use a limb or experience severe pain when the limb is manipulated require emergency veterinary care.

Possible Causes

Limping in cats can be caused by a wide variety of underlying diseases, injuries, or infections. 

Diseases that can cause cats to limp include:

• Developmental diseases, such as patellar luxation • Degenerative diseases, such as osteoarthritis

• Autoimmune diseases, such as immune-mediated arthritis • Inflammatory diseases, such as cellulitis

• Endocrine diseases, particularly diabetes mellitus • Nutritional disorders

• Tumors and cancer, particularly bone cancer • Traumatic injury • Cardiovascular events like saddle thrombi

• Infectious diseases, particularly fungal and bacterial infections

Injuries that can cause cats to limp include:

• Ligament injuries • Bruises • Fractures • Animal bites • Frostbite • Damage to claw or claw bed

• Tears, cuts, or punctures in the footpad, foot or leg • Spinal or vertebral injury • Strained or sprained muscle

Risk Factors

Generalizing severity, treatment and outcomes associated with limping is difficult due to the wide range of underlying causes. Close observation of the cat is required to determine the severity of the disruption. Variables to be considered include:

• Whether the pain is acute or chronic • Whether exercising the limb makes it better or worse

• Whether there are obvious abnormalities of the leg, toes, paw pads, or hips

• Whether the effect on the limb changes over time • How many and which limbs are affected

In cases where an underlying cause cannot be determined upon observation, or where the cause is not easily resolved at home, prompt veterinarian attention is required

Testing and Diagnosis

In cases of limping, minor injuries are often self-limiting and heal on their own. When the underlying cause is clear and easily managed at home, treatments include: • Remove any foreign objects from the injury • Control the bleeding • Apply ice packs to the area

• Clean the wound with antibacterial soap • Apply warm compress or soak in warm water

Depending on the specific nature of the injury.

In cases where a limping cat requires veterinary attention, diagnostic approaches include:

• Physical exam • X-rays, ultrasounds or other imaging techniques • Blood tests

• Biopsy of the affected area • Joint fluid sampling and testing • Neurological exam

Treatment plans depend on test findings. Treatment options may include:

• Immobilization of the limb in a cast or splint • Surgical repair with pins and plates

• Joint replacement/resetting and stabilization with slings or bandages

•  Chondroprotectant medication to protect cartilage

Managing pain and reducing swelling is a common addition to the treatment of underlying conditions. Prescribed nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications reduce inflammation. Over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications must be avoided as they can be toxic, and use of these medications is complicated and requires expert oversight.

Other therapies to manage pain and return normal function include:

• Chiropractic •  Acupuncture • Physical therapy • Laser therapy

Similar symptoms

An irregular gait due to a neurological condition, called ataxia, can appear similar to lameness. With lameness, the cat’s gait is abnormal, but follows a regular and consistent pattern. With ataxia, the cat’s gait abnormality does not follow a pattern, and they often appear uncoordinated and wobbly.

Associated Symptoms

Limping is associated with other symptoms, including:

• Changes in gait • Stiffness • Less activity or more frequent pauses in activity • Swelling

• Yowling or whimpering • Reluctance to be touched • Lower appetite • Aggression

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