Limited Mobility in Dogs

Key Takeaways

Limited mobility in dogs is difficulty or reluctance to perform the usual activities of daily living.  • A dog who has trouble going up or down stairs, has difficulty getting in and out of the car, is reluctant to jump up or down from furniture or up onto people, or is stiff getting up after sleeping has limited mobility

• Many bodily systems are involved in mobility including the muscles, bones and joints, nerves, blood supply, hormone and electrolyte levels, and respiration

• Disruption to any of these systems can result in limited mobility

• Possible underlying causes of limited mobility include arthritis, injuries, intervertebral disc disease, luxating patella, and vestibular disease

• Diagnostic tools include physical examination, bloodwork, and diagnostic imaging

• Treatment and prognosis depend on the underlying cause

A Closer Look: What is Limited Mobility in Dogs?

There are a wide variety of potential causes of limited mobility. Many body systems are involved in moving the limbs and supporting body weight. The bones and joints, muscles, blood, organs of balance, nerves, and body chemistry work together to ensure walking, jumping, climbing, and moving are possible.  Disruption to any of the systems can result in limited mobility.  Limited mobility is common in dogs. Dogs of any age, breed and gender are susceptible to limited mobility. Older dogs are more susceptible to some of the causes of limited mobility. Dogs who have difficulty or are reluctant to perform the activities of daily living such as climbing stairs, getting in the car, or jumping onto furniture benefit from the attention of a veterinarian to investigate the underlying cause.

Possible Causes

Common causes of limited mobility in dogs include:

OsteoarthritisOsteochondrosis dissecans • Injuries • Cranial cruciate ligament (CCL) tear

• Intervertebral disc disease • Luxating patella (knee deformity) • Vestibular disease • Vision loss

Risk Factors

The severity of limited mobility depends on the underlying cause. Some underlying causes typically affect young dogs and some affect older dogs.

Factors that impact mobility include:

• Pain • Dysfunction of the muscles, bones, or joints  • Disruption of breathing and oxygen delivery to tissues

• Dysfunction of the nervous system, including impaired vision and inner ear issues

• Imbalance of hormones or electrolytes

Conditions that affect younger dogs are often congenital (developed in the womb) or the result of injury. Conditions that affect older dogs are often progressive (worsen over time) or the result of injury.

Acute conditions are often severe but resolve quickly, especially when treated promptly. This includes traumatic injuries such as tears to the ligaments, fractures, and certain forms of vestibular disease. Others are chronic, meaning that they last over long periods, require ongoing treatment, and sometimes worsen with time. This includes progressive forms of intervertebral disc disease, osteoarthritis, and osteochondritis dissecans.

Testing and Diagnosis

Careful observation of the dog at home builds a complete picture of what movements are difficult to perform and in what context. Physical assessment can rule our minor causes like a wound on the foot pad. In some cases, including minor sprains or strains, mild mobility issues resolve themselves without treatment. A dog who has ongoing or increasing difficulty performing the activities of daily living benefits from veterinary attention to diagnose underlying causes and develop a treatment plan. 

Diagnostic tools include:

• Physical examination • Bloodwork • Diagnostic imaging, such as X-rays or ultrasound

• Advanced imaging, such as CT and MRI

Treatment is difficult to generalize due to the variety of possible underlying causes. Treatments include:

• Pain management • Antibiotics, in cases of infection • Splinting, in cases of fractures • Surgery 

Depending on severity or complexity, some cases benefit from referral to a board-certified veterinary specialist such as a neurologist or orthopedic surgeon for treatment.  Some conditions associated with limited mobility require ongoing management strategies to make activities of daily living easier. Options include:

• Using ramps for short flights of stairs • Using a step stool to get into the car or onto furniture

• Placing carpet runners on slippery floors • Soothing pain and soreness with warm blankets or hot water bottles

• Vet-prescribed pain medications • Adjusting exercise routines

Similar symptoms

Fear of certain activities is sometimes mistaken for limited mobility. In some cases, dogs who have had a bad experience going up or down stairs or getting into or out of the car (because they have been injured or frightened, for example) associate those activities with painful outcomes. 

Limited mobility is not to be confused with weakness, which is the lack of energy enervating the muscles of the body.

Associated Symptoms

• Limping • Joint painJoint swelling • Stumbling or staggering  • Weakness • Loss of appetite

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