Just like humans, dogs sometimes break bones, sprain muscles, slip discs or tear ligaments, all of which can lead to the sudden onset of limping or movement difficulties. Torn knee ligaments occur frequently. Muscle strains are less common, but even these can occur while dogs undertake something as simple as climbing stairs.
Arthritis (sometimes referred as osteoarthritis) can also present as a sudden onset of lameness, should a jarring or untoward movement occur. Of course, dogs may chronically suffer from illnesses of lameness as well. Diagnosis and management of these conditions, however, will not be addressed here.
What To Watch For
In most limping cases there will be no external sign of damage. However, limbs may dangle at an unnatural angle when fractured or dislocated. Bones may even pierce the skin. Sometimes bleeding as well as swelling may also occur.
Accidents and other traumatic origins are the most common causes, though slow, chronic degeneration of a ligament or disc, for example, can sometimes lead to a sudden onset of orthopedic pain or lameness.
In all cases:
- Do not move the dog. Restrain it if necessary.
- Check for broken bones (including dislocations) by observing the angle of the limb and its stability. As a rule of thumb, weight-bearing lameness is unlikely to be a fracture.
- If there are no obvious breaks and the dog can hobble, there is generally no need to splint the leg.
- Lame dogs should be confined and there movements restricted for a few days.
- Persistent lameness (more than 24 hours) or a more severe lameness require immediate veterinary attention.
In cases of severe pain or swelling:
- If the dog is large and is able to walk on three legs, allow him to walk to the car and take him to the vet immediately. Small dogs will need to be gently carried.
- If the dog is suffering from back pain rather than a swollen limb, cradle him while carrying him to the car. (Because it may be difficult to distinguish back pain from limb pain, handle all limping dogs gently).
In mild cases:
- Apply a cold compress (such as a wet cloth or bag of frozen vegetables) to the joint to help reduce inflammation.
- If the area remains inflamed or the dog exhibits pain for more than 24 hours, switch to a warm compress and bring her to a veterinarian for an evaluation.
The cause of a limp can often be diagnosed with just a simple physical examination. However, X-rays and manipulation of the affected area under sedation may also be required. There are even some cases where CT scans and MRIs are needed.
Living and Management
Never exercise a lame dog. In fact, the dog must be allowed to rest completely for a few days and up to several weeks. When the lameness subsides, continue resting her for at least another 24 to 48 hours. Only then should you reintroduce exercise, and only in a gentle and progressive manner.