Shifting Lameness in Dogs: Is It Always Lyme Disease?

We all know this one, right? The cause of shifting lameness, quick, anybody? Yes, intermittent or shifting lameness is a common symptom of Lyme disease.

Shifting Lameness in Dogs: Is It Always Lyme Disease?

So that’s it? Case closed?

Not so fast. Yes, shifting lameness, stiff walk, and sensitivity to touch can signal Lyme disease. However, it likely wouldn’t be the only symptom you’d see. You can observe any other signs involved with an infection, such as swollen joints, lethargy, fever, loss of appetite, lymph node swelling, and others. Serious complications can even include kidney damage.

Only 5-10% of dogs who might test positive for the disease are likely to show any symptoms.

The traditional antibody test can only tell you whether or not your dog has been exposed to the organism that causes Lyme; it doesn’t tell you whether or not there is an active disease. Meaning, your dog will have antibodies if they successfully fought off Lyme disease and from vaccination as well. A better antibody test is available now to diagnose only active infections.

However, Lyme disease is not the only potential cause of shifting lameness.

If you have a medium to large breed puppy between the ages of 5 to 18 months, your pup’s joint pain might have nothing to do with an infection but rather be caused by what is sometimes referred to as growing pains, panosteitis.

While the reason for joint inflammation is very different, the result is similar.

All that doesn’t exclude the possibility of other conditions that affect more than one leg.

For example, when Trago started limping, panosteitis was the initial diagnosis he was given. As it turned out, however, this wasn’t Trago’s problem at all. Instead, Trago had bilateral elbow dysplasia.

Both elbows were hurting. Picture this, if you will. One might hurt just a little bit more than the other. Compensation will lead to overusing the other leg, making that one hurt more. And so on. The mystery behind shifting lameness.

Your dog can have hip dysplasia but start favoring one of the front legs. The principle is the same. Compensation can result in pain even in places that initially had nothing wrong with them.

Further causes of shifting lameness include:

  • other infectious diseases like ehrlichiosis or leishmaniasis
  • immune-mediated disorders,
  • and even back problems

In closing

The only thing shifting lameness tells me for sure is that there is a problem.

Does it tell me what the problem is? Not really. I can have my suspicions based on age, history, and lifestyle, but I’d be just guessing without a vet and proper diagnostics.

Further reading:
20 Causes of Lameness & Limping in Dogs

Related articles:
What is that Limp?
Lyme is Lame

Categories: ConditionsLamenessLimpingReal-life StoriesShifting lamenessSymptoms

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Jana Rade edited by Dr. Joanna Paul BSc BVSc

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. Dr. Joanna Paul BSc BVSc is our wonderful sponsor and has been kind to edit and fact-check my important articles.

  1. FiveSibesMom

    Good info, as always from you. Lameness always worried me with my FiveSibes. After they reached the magical age of youth, varying factors resulted in lameness. Mostly CCL issues, and my Epi had weak hind issues. Thankfully, none of mine developed Lyme. Pinning to share with others.

  2. Although one of my dogs tested positive for Lyme Disease, she hasn’t had any symptoms. I’ll remember this post in case she develops shifting lameness. I’d hate to assume it was caused by Lyme Disease if there was another problem.

  3. Something as humdrum as growing pains eh? I would never have thought of it but, from what you say, this is one time I would be off to the vet very quickly as I would not want my dog to be in pain for any reason at all.

  4. Shifting lameness is a red flag of something. The question is always what. Lyme disease is a bugaboo. I don’t think in of the possibilities of lameness are necessarily better than the others. They’re all awful! Then you have to figure out a treatment plan once you figure out the source. Shifting or on and off lameness is a biggie one though. Great job on cracking this subject.

  5. Lyme disease is always the first thing I think of with shifting lameness, although I do know it’s not responsible for 100% of cases. It’s hard for me to not think immediately of Lyme, though, because it’s SO common where I live. In my state, 1 out of every 7 dogs test positive for Lyme. A vet clinic a town over from us reported even higher rates – 1 out of every 4. So when vets around here see shifting lameness, Lyme disease is always the first thing they test for. Although, of course, it’s so important to do all required testing to 100% get to the bottom of what the cause is.

  6. Interested read. I did not realize Lyme disease could cause shifting lameness in dogs. Moreover, I did not realize the simple fact of growing pains in certain breeds could have the same result too. Thanks for sharing this information. Like you said, all shifting lameness lets you know is there is an issue. The next step is getting it checked out by a veterinarian.

  7. Very interesting! Lyme disease does not get as much attention in the cat world. I’m sorry to hear that Trago had such a difficult problem with his legs. That sounds so painful! You are absolutely right – going to the veterinarian and having tests done is the only way to truly diagnose an illness in your pet. Guessing and assuming are not a good ideas.

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