Dog Lameness Diagnosis: Why It Is Essential to Figure out What’s Wrong

Why does it matter why is my dog limping? Isn’t the treatment is the same?

There is a long list of why your dog might be lame and different causes require different measures. Potential lameness causes further break down into two categories depending on whether the limping is acute or ongoing.

When your dog suddenly becomes lame, you might be looking at anything from toe or toenail injuries, foreign bodies, stings, and infections, to joint injuries or broken bones. Chronic limping, especially if it keeps getting worse rather than better, is a whole different story.

Further information: Why Is My Dog Limping? Causes of Lameness in Dogs

Dog Lameness Diagnosis: Why It Is Essential to Figure out What's Wrong

Acute or chronic

How can you tell whether your dog’s limp is an acute, chronic, or progressive problem? Further, when more than one leg is sore, you might not even see a limp at all. Rather, there might be other subtle changes in your dog’s behavior, such as stiffness or reluctance to move.

And sometimes, to complicate things further, you might have an acute trauma on top of a chronic problem. For example, just because your dog has arthritis, it doesn’t mean they cannot rupture their cruciate ligament. On the contrary, compensation leads to altered use of the body, increasing risk of injuring other parts.

Further reading: Injury and Compensation in Dogs

Figuring out the cause

First, check for any obvious wounds or foreign bodies. You may or may not need to see a vet with pad or nail injuries, infections, bites, or stings. If you doubt whether you can provide appropriate wound care, see a veterinarian.

If you find no external signs and your dog is not in severe pain, rest and exercise restriction are a common measure. Often, lameness can improve with rest. However, if your dog is not improving, it’s time to get a diagnosis. That, however, can be trickier than you think.

Further reading: Why Is My Dog Limping? Causes of Lameness in Dogs

If you’re lucky, your veterinarian will diagnose your dog’s problem during physical examination. Although, they might recommend x-rays for a better picture of what’s going on.

However, findings from both can be misleading. For example, your veterinarian might find a sore muscle and diagnose it as a muscle injury. But the sore muscle can be secondary to the main problem—a compensatory injury. Such as in Cookie’s case, she had sore biceps and back muscles compensating for her sore elbows. It can take work to peel the onion.

Additionally, your dog’s x-rays might show arthritis in one or more joints—that’s why he’s limping then, right? However, what shows up on the x-rays doesn’t always reflect how the dog feels. The pain level and the radiographs can be a substantial mismatch. And it doesn’t mean that there isn’t a new problem on top of the old one. A dog with arthritis can still suffer other injuries; in fact, existing conditions make it more likely.

Important note:

If your dog’s limp is getting worse rather than better, insist on x-rays, particularly with a large breed dog.

Recently, a member of my dog health issues group sought advice for her Rottweiler. The dog has been limping, and his lameness didn’t respond to pain medication. At first, they suspected arthritis. But then, the dog developed an obvious swelling around the wrist. The owner was reluctant to agree to the x-rays the veterinarian recommended. I urged her to have the radiographs done. With a limp that’s getting worse, it’s essential to consider bone cancer as a potential cause.

I insisted on x-rays when Cookie’s front leg lameness wasn’t going away to see if it helps with the diagnosis but especially to rule out osteosarcoma.

Potential causes of acute limping
  • toe and toenail
    • injuries
    • foreign bodies
    • infections
  • footpad
    • injuries
    • foreign bodies
    • infections
  • stings and bites
  • bruising
  • muscle injuries
  • ligament injuries
  • tendon injuries
  • joint injuries or dislocation
  • broken bones
  • spinal misalignment or injury
  • neurological conditions
Potential causes of chronic limping
  • hip dysplasia
  • elbow dysplasia
  • luxating patella
  • shoulder instability
  • arthritis
  • OCD
  • tick-borne diseases
  • developmental disorders
  • inflammatory conditions
  • autoimmune conditions
  • neurological conditions
  • cancer

Different lameness causes require different interventions. Therefore, getting to the bottom of the cause is essential. Often further diagnostics are warranted and can include:

  • stride and weight-bearing analysis
  • x-rays
  • CT scan
  • MRI
  • arthroscopy

For example, muscle sprains and strains might need just rest, activity restrictions, and perhaps some anti-inflammatory medication. However, what if you dismiss lameness as a minor strain and it’s a spider or snake bite instead? Or dismiss progressing tick-borne disease or even bone cancer as arthritis?

Example stories

Dog Lameness Assumption Trap: Tosha's Snake Bite
Dog Lameness Assumption Trap: Tosha’s Snake Bite

At first, Tosha’s parents thought that she had injured her cruciate ligament. What would happen if they weren’t paying attention and failed to discover the snakebite, which was the real cause of her lameness?

Dog CCL Injury Misdiagnosis: Lucy's Hind Leg Lameness
Dog CCL Injury Misdiagnosis: Lucy’s Hind Leg Lameness

Lucy’s hind leg lameness was diagnosed with cruciate injury by her veterinarian and almost underwent surgery. The cause of her lameness was iliopsoas injury instead.

Tick Season Lameness: BooBoo's Story—What Would You Do if It Was Your Dog?
Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever: BooBoo’s Story

Lameness was BooBoo’s first symptom. The veterinarian put her on anti-inflammatory medications for suspected pain from hip dysplasia. Meanwhile, BooBoo was suffering from Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever.

Limping Border Collie: What Caused Bruder's Lameness?
Limping Border Collie: What Caused Bruder’s Lameness?

Bruder became lame on his front leg. His veterinarian couldn’t find an apparent cause and prescribed pain medication and rest. When the lameness didn’t improve, he x-rayed the whole leg. Everything looked normal, but Bruder was still lame. Bruder had a piece of glass in his foot that was hard to find.

sdiagnosed Lameness in a Dog: Cody's Spinal Cord Injury Diagnosis
Misdiagnosed Lameness in a Dog: Cody’s Spinal Cord Injury Diagnosis

After a tumble, Cody became lame on his front leg. The veterinarian diagnosed her with spinal injury. What was Cody’s problem? Shoulder tendinitis.

Arthritis or a Knee Injury? Oscar's Lameness Story
Arthritis or a Knee Injury? Oscar’s Lameness Story

Oscar had mild arthritis in his hips which gave him moderate problems that resolved with medical treatment. When Oscar became fully lame, the first suspects were his hips or knee injury. Instead, Oscar had a raw wound on the inside of his toe.

Sores and Lameness in a Dog: Is there a Connection between Star's Mysterious Lameness and Skin Issues?
Sores and Lameness in a Dog: Is there a Connection between Star’s Mysterious Lameness and Skin Issues?

When Star started having sore legs and difficulty getting around, the veterinarian suspected hip dysplasia. But x-rays showed no evidence of that. Star wasn’t doing well but diagnosis remained elusive. Eventually, it turned out that Star had canine herpesvirus.

Front Leg Lameness in a Rottweiler: Cookie's Sore Front Legs
Front Leg Lameness in a Rottweiler: Cookie’s Sore Front Legs

Cookie had an ongoing issue with front leg lameness, shifting from right to left. Was it her shoulders? Was it her spine? It was a long road to getting an elbow dysplasia diagnosis.

Bone Cancer in a Dog: Wallace's Osteosarcoma
Bone Cancer in a Dog: Wallace’s Osteosarcoma

Wallace started with a mild limp after one of his play sessions. Surely it was just a sprain or strain, wasn’t it? His lameness was waxing and waning and wasn’t going away. Then, Wallace’s mom found a hard swelling on his leg.

Acute Lameness in a Dog: JD's Leg Injury And Hip Dysplasia
Acute Lameness in a Dog: JD’s Leg Injury And Hip Dysplasia

JD ran down some stairs with his friend and stumbled. He became extremely lame on his hind leg. X-rays revealed hip dysplasia and hip replacement was on the table. And then, with some rest and physical therapy, the lameness resolved.

Further, sometimes what might look like lameness might have nothing to do with the limbs. For example, with larger dogs, what might look like their arthritis acting up could be life-threatening splenic tumor.

Canine Splenic Tumors: Walks Like A Splenic Tumor, Quacks Like A Splenic Tumor ... It Must Be A UTI?
Walks Like A Splenic Tumor, Quacks Like A Splenic Tumor … It Must Be A UTI?

Mandy indeed did have some arthritis and, because of her trouble walking, ended up with a UTI. But her primary problem had nothing to do with her legs.

Ataxia in a Dog: What Turned Out Not Being An Adverse Drug Reaction After All—JD's Story
What Turned Out Not Being An Adverse Drug Reaction After All—JD’s Story

When JD started having a hard time walking, it looked like his hips were bothering him at first. However, his problem evolved into ataxia.

In closing

What have you learned from the above stories?

It is true that rest and pain management helps with many garden-variety sprains and strains. But other causes of limping might require a whole other approach. Rest and pain management won’t resolve venomous bites, infection, foreign bodies, cancer, and so on.

Make sure you get to the bottom of the cause behind your dog’s lameness.

Have you dealt with a limping dog? What was the diagnosis?

Related articles:
Why Is My Dog Limping? Causes of Lameness in Dogs
Common Limping Misdiagnoses in Dogs

Further reading:
Why Is My Dog Limping?
Dog Lameness – Causes and Treatment of Limping in Dogs

Categories: Dog health advocacy

Jana Rade

I am a graphic designer, dog health advocate, writer, and author. Jasmine, the Rottweiler of my life, was the largest female from her litter. We thought we were getting a healthy dog. Getting a puppy from a backyard breeder was our first mistake. Countless veterinary visits without a diagnosis or useful treatment later, I realized that I had to take Jasmine's health care in my own hands. I learned the hard way that merely seeing a vet is not always enough. There is more to finding a good vet than finding the closest clinic down the street. And, sadly, there is more to advocating for your dog's health than visiting a veterinarian. It should be enough, but it often is not. With Jasmine, it took five years to get a diagnosis. Unfortunately, other problems had snowballed for that in the meantime. Jasmine's health challenges became a crash course in understanding dog health issues and how to go about getting a proper diagnosis and treatment. I had to learn, and I had to learn fast. Helping others through my challenges and experience has become my mission and Jasmine's legacy. I now try to help people how to recognize and understand signs of illness in their dogs, how to work with their veterinarian, and when to seek a second opinion. My goal is to save others the steep curve of having to learn things the hard way as I did. That is the mission behind my blog and behind my writing. That is why I wrote Symptoms to Watch for in Your Dog, which has turned out being an award-winning guide to dog owners. What I'm trying to share encompasses 20 years of experience.

7 Comments
  1. Thank you for sharing this information. I know if one of my cats is favoring a foot or leg, I watch them to see if it gets worse. Luckily, they’ve always gotten better within the day, but I would definitely take them o the vet if it got worse or continued more than a day.

  2. Thanks for sharing all this info about the many reasons dogs might be limping. It can seem so simple on the surface. Great resources too.
    Love & Biscuits,
    Dogs Luv Us and We Luv Them

  3. Excellent information, Jana! Having had several of my Huskies limp for a variety of reasons, it is so important to have a vet check it out. Four had CCL injuries – two required surgery, two I was able to do Conservative Care Treatment. Another time one had a ripped off dew claw. And, of course, there is arthritis as they aged into senior dogs. From rest to ice to braces to surgery to medication, we’ve run the gamut. As you said so many reasons why a dog can limp – from minor to major. Key is to never ignore it and always have it checked out. I’m Pnning to share your info!

  4. Theo started favoring one of his legs recently, so I was able to get an appointment for him the next day. The vet determined it was not a problem with his paw (which is what we initially thought) but rather his hip dysplasia. He is on muscle relaxants again.

  5. Something as ‘straightforward’ as lameness needs careful attention by a dog owner. As you report there seem to be so many things that could be the cause, especially when paw cuts and damage are ruled out.

    I did not realise that cancer could be a diagnosis and I will make sure I share this post as limping must be so common and owner need to know what to do.

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