Like us, dogs limp for a variety of reasons. Unlike us, dogs can’t tell us what happened or where it hurts using words, leaving us struggling to figure it out for ourselves.
Your most valuable resource for determining the cause of your dog’s limp is your veterinarian. Before calling to make an appointment, however, most of us want to know a little bit about the common causes of limping in dogs, what to expect from a veterinary visit, and when limping is a veterinary emergency.
Gradual onset vs. sudden limping
There are two types of limps: gradual onset and sudden onset. Gradual onset limps happen slowly over time. Sudden limps happen quickly, like their name implies, usually after an injury or trauma. Knowing whether or not your dog’s limp is sudden or gradual can help your veterinarian narrow down the possible causes of your dog’s limp, and can help you determine if your dog’s limp is a veterinary emergency.
In general, gradual onset limps are caused by an underlying, chronic condition, such as osteoarthritis or dysplasia. Sudden onset limps, on the other hand, are usually caused by an injury or trauma, like a broken bone or injured paw.
Just because your dog has a gradual limp does not mean you should put off making an appointment. Some causes of gradual limping, such as bone cancer or hip dysplasia, can be treated more effectively if they are caught sooner rather than later.
When to call the vet
In general, it is usually better to play it safe and schedule an appointment with a veterinarian for a limp that lasts more than a few minutes, but as with people, dogs seem to have a knack for getting hurt outside of normal office hours. So how do you know when you can wait until the next morning and when you should rush to the emergency room?
Gradual onset limps or sudden onset limps that don’t seem to be bothering your dog too much can usually wait a few hours, and in some cases, may even resolve on their own during the waiting period. In other cases, however, your dog can’t wait.
Broken bones or dislocated joints require immediate care, and nerve damage can be a sign of a more serious neurological condition or spinal injury. You need to get your dog into the veterinarian or veterinary emergency room if your dog shows any of the following signs of an emergency:
- Dangling limb (dislocation)
- Hot limb
- Obvious break or unnatural angle
Common causes of limping in dogs
Lameness in dogs is a frequent veterinary complaint, and there is a huge range of possible causes, from chronic conditions to trauma. This may seem overwhelming, but these causes can be broken down into a few categories.
If you’ve ever stepped on a piece of glass, then you know how it feels to have something sharp lodged in your foot. Foreign bodies, like glass, nails, sticks, thorns, plant matter, or anything else that should not be in your dog’s paw, hurt. They make it uncomfortable to walk and can lead to infection. Insect and animal stings or bites can also cause tenderness and limping, as can lacerations, broken toenails, burns, frostbite, and bruising. A sign that your dog may have something stuck in his paw is that he will lick his paw incessantly.
Some conditions cause gradual wear and tear on joints and the musculoskeletal system. This leads to limping. Osteoarthritis, hip dysplasia, elbow dysplasia, patellar luxation, ligament disease, intervertebral disk disease, and osteochondritis dissecans (OCD) all can cause limping on any of the affected limbs. Infections like Lyme disease can also cause joint pain and limping, which is just one more reason why it is important to have your dog on an effective tick preventative.
Some diseases affect the bones in your dog’s legs. Younger dogs, especially large breed puppies, can develop conditions such as hypertrophic osteodystrophy and panosteitis, which make walking painful. Certain cancers, such as osteosarcoma, also affect bones and require prompt diagnosis for the best prognosis.
Injury or trauma
Injuries and trauma are the most obvious causes of limping in dogs. From car accidents to sports injuries, our dogs are exposed to almost as many types of injuries as we are. Broken bones, fractures, sprains, dislocations, ligament tears, joint trauma, and spinal injuries can all cause moderate to severe limping, and in some cases the dog may not be able to put weight on the affected leg at all. Proper conditioning can help reduce the risk of some sports injuries, but a limping canine athlete should be given plenty of rest until the cause of the limp is identified and treated.
If your dog becomes acutely lame (especially if he's a puppy), wait for about 15 minutes and try to keep your pup quiet and still. They are like children and will likely yelp and cry for about five minutes. You may find them acting perfectly normal after that time and save yourself a trip to the emergency room.
If, however, they are still lame or non-weight bearing after 15 minutes, you should have them be seen by their veterinarian.
Diagnosing a limping dog
Sometimes the cause of your dog’s limp is clear, like a broken bone or a piece of glass in a paw pad. Other times, the cause is a little more elusive.
Your veterinarian may have to run some tests to determine the cause of your dog’s limp. Radiographs can help identify a broken bone, joint disease, and other skeletal abnormalities. Biopsies and joint fluid collection can help identify cancer and other possible causes, and blood testing for infectious diseases like Lyme or immune-related diseases may also be necessary.
Prior to testing, your veterinarian will perform a physical examination of your dog to test for tenderness, pain, and range of motion in his limbs. You can also do your own examination at home before you call the veterinarian. However, without proper training, testing the range of motion and manipulating your dog’s leg is a bad idea and could injure your dog further. You can gently run your hand down your dog’s leg and paw to check for swelling, heat, and to determine where your dog is tender. This information can help your veterinarian determine whether or not your dog can wait for an opening or if he needs to come in on an emergency basis.
Treating a limping dog
The treatment for your dog’s lameness will vary depending on the cause. Your dog’s treatment plan could be as simple as a few days of rest, or it could entail surgery, further testing, and a prolonged recovery. While this may sound intimidating, in most cases the sooner you get your dog in to see the veterinarian, the better the prognosis.
While you are waiting for your appointment, try to keep your dog as calm as possible and abstain from exercise or play to avoid making the limp worse, and if necessary, crate your dog in the car to prevent further injury.
For further questions about your dog’s limp, contact your veterinarian and schedule an appointment.