By Lynne Miller
As a devoted cat parent, you want your kitty to be happy and healthy, so of course it’s difficult to watch her struggle to get around.
Many conditions involving the joints, muscles, bones, nerves, or skin can cause cats to limp, and some issues are more serious than others. If your kitty collided with a moving vehicle or fell from a window, it’s no mystery why she cannot walk normally. But sometimes the cause of limping is not so dramatic or obvious.
If your cat is injured, you may be able to spot the injury by gently examining the affected limb, says Dr. Duncan Lascelles, professor of surgery and pain management at the North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine. “If there isn’t obvious damage, then it may not be urgent,” he says. “If it’s a little bit of limping, I would say watch it for a day or two. It might settle down.”
Certain conditions require immediate medical attention. If your cat has been in an accident or suffered another trauma, you should take her to the veterinarian as soon as possible, Lascelles says. “If you leave something more serious and painful, the situation will get worse rapidly.”
Learn more about the causes of limping in cats, symptoms to watch out for, and how to help your kitty.
Symptoms That May Accompany Limping in Cats
Limping combined with house soiling or other unusual behaviors is cause for concern, says Dr. Sarah Peakheart, a clinical assistant professor at Oklahoma State University who previously worked in private practice at a feline-only clinic.
“Any lameness accompanied by other symptoms such as fever, difficulty breathing or change in breathing, pain when touched, reluctance to move or eat, and the inability to get comfortable or sleep would warrant immediate care,” Peakheart says. “If a cat is sleeping more or playing less, reluctant to jump or grooming less, there is something wrong.”
Limping often is the result of a soft tissue injury in the animal’s leg, like a strained muscle or injured ligament, says Dr. Dorothy Nelson, an associate veterinarian at the Scottsdale Cat Clinic in Arizona. Take your pet to the veterinarian, who can take X-rays to determine the actual problem.
Nelson prescribes anti-inflammatory medications and rest for cats with these types of injuries. They usually recover completely. The hardest part is making sure your kitty stays off her feet as she recovers, she says. “Convincing a cat not to jump on a bookcase can be difficult.”
In addition to trauma and soft tissue injuries, many medical issues and environmental hazards can sideline cats. Identifying the cause may require a bit of investigation.
Causes of Limping in Cats
Arthritis causes lameness and other mobility problems for cats of all ages, Lascelles says. Unlike a broken bone or wound, arthritis is harder for cat owners to recognize because it’s subtle. But cats definitely feel the effects. Arthritis causes pain and makes it difficult for animals to perform everyday functions. In addition to limping, some arthritic cats cut down on physical activity.
Though not very common, hip dysplasia, or loose hips, and patellar luxation, a dislocation of the kneecap, can cause arthritis in cats, Lascelles says. Treating a cat with a dislocated kneecap may require surgery. Since the operation is more complicated in cats than in dogs, he recommends finding a surgeon who has experience with cats and pain management.
Physical exercise can relieve the symptoms of arthritis, but you cannot expect a cat who’s suffering to pursue mice or play with yarn. “We need to provide pain relief to allow these cats to move normally and better,” he says. “Exercise produces pain relief, but you cannot exercise if you’re uncomfortable.”
Work with your veterinarian to develop a treatment plan that can help relieve your cat’s pain and inflammation. Never give your cat any medication without first consulting your veterinarian. Pain medications for cats should only be administered under close veterinary supervision.
Feeding your cat an appropriate diet can help relieve chronic inflammation and pain. Supplementing your arthritic pet’s diet with omega-3 fatty acids can also help her feel more comfortable, Lascelles says.
Ingrown Toenails, Cat Fights, and Cacti
You may not be able to see it, but an ingrown toenail may be causing your cat to limp. Nelson says ingrown toenails are hard to see on Maine Coons, Persians, and other cats with long shaggy fur. If cats have arthritis in their toes, they may avoid the scratching post, leading to ingrown toenails.
Your veterinarian will remove the nail from your pet’s paw pad and wash the wound. He or she may also prescribe antibiotics and pain medication to help your cat heal and feel better, Nelson says.
Nelson has also treated limping cats who were wounded in fights with other felines or injured by cactus plants and hot stoves. Treatment involves removing the hair around the wound, cleaning and flushing the wound, and administering antibiotics. Cats usually recover from these types of injuries, she says.
Neurological Diseases and Cancers
Though not common, neurological diseases can affect the way a cat walks. For example, lumbosacral disease or degeneration causes intense pain toward the base of the animal’s tail, Lascelles says. Similar to a slipped disc, intervertebral disc disease can occur on any part of the cat’s back or neck. “The two diseases can look similar,” he says. “You have back pain that causes cats to move stiffly.”
Steroids or surgery may be recommended for treating a neurological disease, he says.
In other cases, some cancers can make kitties lame. “Any tumor if it occurs in the right place can cause limping,” Lascelles says. “In (examining) older cats, veterinarians will have that in the back of their mind.”
Lung-digit syndrome, injection site sarcoma, and lymphoma are among the cancers that can cause cats to limp, Peakheart says. Your veterinarian will perform a series of diagnostic tests to determine whether cancer is present.
Cats can encounter unusual hazards playing outdoors. When she practiced veterinary medicine in Florida, Nelson treated cats with grass awns embedded in their paws.
Also known as foxtails, grass awns don’t look particularly dangerous. An awn is a bristle-like appendage that grows from various types of grasses. The awn’s spikes and sharp edges can penetrate the skin and tissues of both cats and dogs.
“You have to dig through the wound to pull that out,” Nelson says. Before removing the awn, a veterinarian will sedate the cat with general anesthesia.
A cat who limps is in pain. Since a kitty will never complain about pain or other symptoms, it’s up to you to pay attention to your pet and take her in for professional treatment when needed, Lascelles says. “Cat owners should not assume pain will go away on its own. Pain should be investigated.”