Limping is a symptom that is easy to observe. That doesn’t mean it is always easy to diagnose.
Most limping dogs never end up at a veterinary hospital. Minor sprains and strains can often resolve on their own with rest allowing the tissue to heal. But what if lameness doesn’t go away after a few days of rest?
The whole thing seems pretty straightforward. Your dog is limping because they got a sore leg, right?
That does bring us to the important part—yes, if your dog is limping, there is pain.
Too often people think that their dog is just limping but he’s not in pain. I can’t tell you how many times I heard that. “He’s limping but he’s not hurting.” You really think so?
When was the last time you limped for a reason other than pain? It is the same with your dog. They limp because he hurts. This is important to realize and address.
Beware of bias
Depending on your past experiences, when you see your dog limping you might read different things into a limp. Don’t fall into the assumption trap. Experiences breed bias.
After Jasmine busted both knees, when I saw a limp on a hind leg, a knee injury was the first thing that came to mind. Torn cruciate ligaments are indeed the most common injuries in dogs.
But then, with no more cruciate ligaments to rupture, Jasmine presented with a limp that looked exactly the same. But how could that be? The knees can fail during the first six months post-op but not after that. Indeed, even though it looked identical, Jasmine’s limping had nothing to do with her knees.
The many reasons for dog lameness
Before you let your experience lead you down the wrong path, realize there are many different reasons why your dog might become lame. Some of them might not even originate in the leg.
Always start by trying to figure out which leg has the problem. Trust me, this is not always all that easy to determine. It often appears that the leg a dog is throwing themselves down on is the painful one, Meanwhile, it is the one they try to avoid weight-bearing on.
Observe your dog carefully. Whenever possible, dogs will try to reduce the amount of weight they put on a painful leg.
Note: if your dog is not bearing any weight on the affected limb, and particularly if they’re crying also, seek veterinary help right away. Ignoring a serious injury can lead to suffering and complications that could have been avoided.
Examining the leg
In less serious cases, examine the affected leg thoroughly, starting from the toes and working your way upward. Sometimes seemingly small things can cause a substantial lameness
A chunk of a porcupine quill in Cookie’s foot resulted in complete lameness of her hind left leg. She wouldn’t bear any weight on it at all. And it looked so much like a busted knee, I could have sworn that’s what it was.
No matter what you think might be going on, take a moment to examine your dog.
Jasmine’s foot infection also caused her to favor the affected leg.
A cracked or split nail can also be very painful and cause substantial lameness. Cracks that bleed might require sedation to be properly taken care of. Bruised or fractured toes, cut webbing or pads, foreign objects wedged between the toes, masses or cysts can all also cause your dog to limp.
Quite a list already and we didn’t even get past the feet, huh?
If the feet check out, continue to examine along the leg. Look for any swelling, bleeding or asymmetry, and try to determine exactly where the pain is originating from.
A friend’s dog started limping suddenly on his hind leg and they too assumed it was an injured knee. It turned out being a snake or spider bite. So always pay attention and be thorough. Depending on the type of snake or spider, their bite can be very dangerous.
Not bearing any weight on the affected leg could also mean a broken bone; obviously, these injuries are extremely painful.
Last but not least are the joints. Injuries, structural abnormalities or flare-ups of chronic conditions, such as arthritis, can all cause lameness. Joint problems that can result in a limp include cruciate ligament tears, hip dysplasia, luxating patella, elbow dysplasia, osteochondritis dissecans, arthritis, and other conditions.
And while scaring you is not my intention, the most serious cause of pain and lameness is bone cancer.
Typically, in young dogs most common causes of lameness are strains, sprains or bruises, and in older dogs joint issues. But that does not always have to be the case.
Tip: If your dog’s lameness is worst in the morning, you’re likely looking at a joint problem, while lameness at the end of the day could point to a muscle problem.
Should you see a veterinarian?
It is important to recognize when simply resting your dog is appropriate and when you should seek veterinary attention.
If your dog is in extreme pain, has been limping for an extended period of time and rest isn’t helping, if there is bleeding or suspicious lumps or swelling, please see your veterinarian as soon as possible.
To complicate matters further, there are situations when your dog’s limping might have nothing to do with the limbs at all.
One time Jasmine came home from the horse farm completely lame on her hind right leg. She wouldn’t put any weight on it at all, even when lying down. It looked even worse than when she had torn her knee ligament.
We took her to her chiropractor/physical therapist. Jasmine had a tweaked area in the spine, which was causing the lameness. After one chiropractic adjustment, the limp was gone.
When Jasmine started having problems with her neck, one of the ways it presented itself was also front leg lameness. It would come out of the blue and she wouldn’t put the leg down at all. And a few minutes later everything seemed fine again. Not knowing what was causing it was scary. When it started hurting, Jasmine could barely walk. She still wanted to go on her walks but being a large dog, what would we do if she suddenly couldn’t walk at all in the middle of the woods? That was when we got a doggy stretcher to make sure that she’d make it back home one way or another.
Simple limping might not always be so simple and sometimes it can be a symptom of a serious problem.
While rest might often be all your dog needs, please be observant and diligent and take limping seriously.
Acute limping dog checklist
Toenails can grow into a paw pad or break. That is all very painful can absolutely lead to lameness.
Between the toes
Inflammation, infections and foreign objects between the toes can cause your dog to favor the leg. Look for redness, swelling, or wetness for a clue.
Injuries and foreign bodies in footpads, bleeding or non-bleeding can get your dog keeping the weight of the foot. Injuries might be readily visible while foreign bodies might not.
Stings, bites, and infections
Stings, snake bites and infections anywhere on the leg can result in lameness.
Joint injuries are one of the most common causes of lameness in dogs. You might hear your dog yelp when it happens.
A dog with a broken bone is likely not to put any weight on the affected leg at all. It is extremely painful to a degree that your dog might scream in pain. Breaks usually have considerable swelling. Broken bones require immediate veterinary attention.
When is it an emergency?
If your dog is in significant pain, not using the leg, unable to stand or walk, not interested in play and food, see a vet immediately. If your dog was hit by a car or fell from a great height, it is always an emergency.
The Assumption Trap: Tosha’s Snake Bite
Lameness Exam: What Your Vet Might Be Missing?