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Like humans, dogs limp for a variety of reasons. But unlike us, dogs can’t tell us what happened or where it hurts using words, which leaves us struggling to figure out why a dog is limping.

Your most valuable resource for determining why your dog is limping 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 a dog limping is a veterinary emergency.

Gradual Onset vs. Sudden Limping in Dogs

There are two types of limps in dogs: 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 limping is sudden or gradual can help your veterinarian narrow down the possible causes of your dog’s limping. Plus, it can help you determine if your dog’s limping is a veterinary emergency.

In general, gradual onset limps in dogs are caused by an underlying, chronic or degenerative condition, such as osteoarthritis or dysplasia. On the other hand, an injury or trauma is usually the cause of sudden onset limps.

Just because your dog has a gradual limp doesn’t 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’re caught sooner rather than later.


When to Call the Vet If Your Dog Is Limping

In general, it’s best to play it safe and call your veterinarian for a dog’s 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 your dog’s limping can wait until the next morning and when you should rush to the emergency vet?

Gradual onset or sudden onset limps that don’t seem to be bothering your dog can usually wait a few hours. In some cases, they 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. Nerve damage can also be a sign of a more serious neurological condition or spinal injury. You need to get your dog into the veterinarian immediately if they show any of the following signs of an emergency:

  • Dangling limb (dislocation)
  • Swelling
  • Hot limb
  • Obvious break or unnatural angle

Common Causes of Limping in Dogs

Lameness in dogs is a frequent veterinary complaint with a huge range of possible causes. This may seem overwhelming, but these causes can be broken down into a few categories.

Paw Injury

If you’ve ever stepped on a piece of glass, 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 shouldn’t 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 their paw is that they’ll lick their paw incessantly.

Braque du Bourbonnais laying in its dog bed at home.
Aiste Stankeviciute/Shutterstock

Joint Disease

Some conditions cause gradual wear and tear on joints and the musculoskeletal system. This leads to a dog that’s limping. Osteoarthritiship 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’s important to have your dog on an effective tick preventative.

If your dog is diagnosed with arthritis or suffers from dysplasia, your vet will most likely recommend a veterinarian-grade joint supplement of glucosamine and chondroitin. Joint supplements are often used as an early intervention and throughout the progression of osteoarthritis because they’re safe for long-term use in most patients. While research is still limited, joint supplements can help reduce symptoms of osteoarthritis and hip dysplasia.

Bone Disease

Some diseases affect the bones in your dog’s legs and can cause a dog to limp. 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 common answer to “why is my dog limping?” 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 in dogs, 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 dog athlete should get plenty of rest until a veterinarian identifies and treats the cause of the limp.

If your dog becomes acutely lame (especially if they’re a puppy), wait for about 15 minutes. Try to keep your dog quiet and still. They’re like children and will likely yelp and cry for a few minutes. You may find them acting perfectly normal after that time and save yourself a trip to the emergency room.

If, however, they’re still lame or non-weight bearing after 15 minutes, you should have them be seen by their veterinarian.

Welsh Springer Spaniel puppy sitting on command indoors.
Rosanne de Vries/Shutterstock

Diagnosing a Limping Dog

Sometimes the cause of your dog’s limp is clear, like a broken bone. Other times, the cause is a little more elusive.

Your veterinarian may have to run some tests to determine why your dog is limping. 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 their 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 they need 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. It could also entail surgery, medication, 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’re waiting for your appointment, try to keep your dog as calm as possible. Abstain from exercise or play to avoid making the dog’s limp worse, and if necessary, crate your dog in the car to prevent further injury.

For further questions about why your dog is limping, contact your veterinarian and schedule an appointment.

This article is intended solely as general guidance, and does not constitute health or other professional advice. Individual situations and applicable laws vary by jurisdiction, and you are encouraged to obtain appropriate advice from qualified professionals in the applicable jurisdictions. We make no representations or warranties concerning any course of action taken by any person following or otherwise using the information offered or provided in this article, including any such information associated with and provided in connection with third-party products, and we will not be liable for any direct, indirect, consequential, special, exemplary or other damages that may result, including but not limited to economic loss, injury, illness or death.

Related article: Review Your First Aid Plan
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