Limping (Lameness) in Dogs

Key Takeaways

Limping, also known as lameness, is when a dog is walking abnormally, unevenly, or with difficulty. 

• Limping is often accompanied by jerky or exaggerated head and body movements as the dog attempts to keep weight off of the affected limb

• Congenital disorders, injuries, infectious diseases, and tumors are some of the most causes of lameness in dogs

• The severity of and subsequent concern about a limp varies with the underlying cause

• There are a number of factors affecting prognosis including, but not limited to: consistency, duration, and number of affected limbs

• Physical examination, blood work, and diagnostic imaging are used to make a diagnosis

• Treatment options include time and rest, wound management, medications, and surgery

• Prognosis varies widely depending on the diagnosis

A Closer Look: What is Limping in Dogs?

Limping is not an emergency by itself. When observed with other serious symptoms, such as dragging a leg or severe bleeding, immediate medical attention is recommended.  Due to the wide variety of causes, limping is quite common in dogs.

Predisposing factors include: 

• Particular breeds • Lifestyle and activity • Obesity

Lameness usually results from a condition affecting one or more limbs or feet, but may also occur in association with a malfunction of the:

• Nervous system • Spine • Neck

Any illness that leads to weakness or paralysis can also cause lameness, common examples include:

• Infections • Toxicoses • Blood disorders

Possible Causes

Some of the most common causes of limping in dogs are:

• Injuries • Cranial cruciate ligament (CCL) injury, especially in larger dogs • Panosteitis • Osteosarcoma

Luxating patella, especially in smaller dogs • Osteochondritis dissecansHip dysplasiaOsteoarthritis

Lyme disease

Risk Factors

The severity of lameness or limping can be determined by a few factors:

• Consistency:  If the dog is limping  constantly, or only intermittently.

• Duration: How long a dog has been limping. This is divided into acute; shorter than two weeks, and chronic; longer than two weeks.

• Affected limb: Which limb is affected, and if the limp or lameness changes from limb to limb

• Number of affected limbs: Whether it is only one limb affected, some, or all limbs. 

• Effect of movement: if movement changes the characteristics of the limp

• Visible changes to limb: If there are visible differences between the affected and unaffected limbs; if there is a difference between the affected limb before and after the limp began.

• Other signs or symptoms: If the dog is showing signs of pain or distress; if there are other symptoms present alongside the limp. 

When limping is accompanied by signs of distress, pain, or other symptoms such as bleeding, vomiting, unsteadiness, or limb dragging, immediate medical attention is recommended.

Testing and Diagnosis

Initial tests for a dog presenting with lameness include:

• Physical examination • Blood work • Diagnostic imaging

The results of the initial testing will determine what further testing is needed. With such a wide range of causes, there are a wide range of tests that may be needed. Treatment is determined by the cause, and varies widely. Symptomatic treatment includes rest, time, anti-inflammatories, and analgesics. Note: many over the counter medications are toxic to animals, especially those that are formulated for use in humans. Never administer medication to a pet without veterinary guidance.

Similar symptoms

Some symptoms that may be mistaken for limping are unsteadiness, weakness, lethargy, and incoordination.

Associated Symptoms

Some symptoms commonly observed alongside a limp include swollen joints, joint pain, and limited mobility.

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