Cat Limping: Causes and Treatment

Jennifer Coates, DVM
By Jennifer Coates, DVM on Sep. 30, 2022

Limping is a sign of pain that should never be ignored. But when is your cat walking with a limp considered an emergency, and when should you take a wait-and-see approach?

Most cats will do everything in their power to hide the fact that they are in pain, so it’s safe to assume that a limping cat is really hurting. Your veterinarian has a lot to offer, so don’t wait too long to get your cat the help they need.

Let’s take a look at the common causes of cat limping, how they’re treated, and most importantly, what you should do when you see your cat limping.

Should You Go to the Vet if Your Cat Is Limping?

There are many causes of cat limping. Some may get better on their own, others require a veterinary visit, and a few are true emergencies. Use the guide below to help you decide how best to respond if your cat is limping.

Give it a few days and see what happens:

  • Your cat has just started limping.
  • They’re limping on and off.
  • They can put weight on the affected leg.
  • They seem to feel fine otherwise. (They’re eating well, using the litter box normally, and aren’t in distress.)

Make an appointment to see your vet in the next few days:

  • Your cat’s limp is not improving after a week of rest, or it is getting worse.
  • Your cat doesn’t want to put much weight on their leg, but they’re acting normally otherwise.

Potential emergency. See a veterinarian now:

  • Your cat is showing signs of extreme pain, such as crying, howling, trembling, not moving or wanting to move, or aggression.
  • You know your cat has experienced serious trauma, such as being hit by a car or attacked by a dog, even if serious injuries aren’t immediately obvious.
  • Your cat has an obvious fracture or dislocation (you can see a bone protruding through the skin, or their leg is deformed).
  • Your cat is dragging a leg.
  • Your cat has other worrisome symptoms, such as bleeding, disorientation, lethargy, or trouble breathing.

If your cat has just developed a slight limp and seems to feel fine otherwise, it’s fine to give it a few days and see if they just have a mild injury that will resolve on its own. Or maybe you’ve made an appointment with your veterinarian, but they couldn’t get you in for a few days. 

In either case, never give your cat any type of pain reliever unless you have been told to do so by your veterinarian. Many pain relievers that we commonly take or give to dogs are extremely toxic for cats.

Here’s some appropriate home treatment if you see your cat limping:

  • Gently examine your cat’s toenails, paw pads, feet, and legs. Maybe you’ll find something that you can manage at home, like a small wound or an overgrown toenail. Skip this step if your cat resists. You don’t want to be bitten or scratched!
  • Keep your cat indoors.
  • Minimize play and encourage rest.
  • Closely monitor the situation to ensure that their condition doesn’t worsen and that they continue to eat, drink, and use the litter box normally

Be careful handling your cat. Even the sweetest cat can lash out when they are in pain. When it’s time to go to the vet’s office, use treats to encourage your cat to enter their carrier on their own. If you have to pick up your cat, place a thick towel over them, then lift and gently put them in a carrier. Don’t try to slide your cat through the door of a hard-sided carrier. Take the top off, put them inside, and then fasten the top in place.

Causes of Cat Limping

Whether your cat is limping on a front or back leg, the potential causes are the same:

  • A broken bone
  • A dislocated joint
  • Foreign material embedded in the skin or deeper tissues
  • A torn toenail
  • Toenails that have grown into the feet
  • A wound, such as a cut, abrasion, bite, or burn
  • An insect sting or bite
  • Bruising
  • Overworked, strained, or torn muscles
  • Injured or ruptured ligaments and tendons
  • Infections affecting soft tissues, bones, or joints
  • Abnormal development (often first noted in younger animals)
  • Osteoarthritis, more likely with age
  • Autoimmune or inflammatory disease
  • Cancer affecting bones, soft tissues, or joints

How Vets Diagnose Limping in Cats

To diagnose the underlying cause of a cat’s limping, a veterinarian will start by asking you a lot of questions about what you have been seeing at home and your cat’s lifestyle and health. Tell the veterinarian about any medications or supplements that your cat is taking.

Next, the veterinarian will watch how your cat moves in the exam room and perform a physical examination, paying special attention to your cat’s musculoskeletal system. Diagnostic testing is often necessary. Veterinarians will usually start with x-rays and routine lab work, but sometimes more advanced diagnostics like a CT scan, MRI, joint fluid analysis, or tissue biopsy are necessary.

Treatment for Limping in Cats

Veterinary treatment will depend on your cat’s diagnosis and overall health. Possibilities include:

  • Cat-friendly pain-relieving medications
  • Antibiotics or other drugs to treat infections
  • Medications to reduce inflammation or suppress the immune system
  • Surgery to repair wounds, stabilize broken bones or joint injuries, or remove tumors
  • Chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or immunotherapy for cancer
  • Nutritional supplements like omega-3 fatty acids, glucosamine, and chondroitin sulfate
  • Complementary therapies, including acupuncture, cold laser treatments, and CBD
  • Physical therapy
  • Weight loss
  • Emerging treatments such as stem cell therapy

Featured Image: iStockPhoto/RobertPetrovic

Health Tools

Not sure whether to see a vet?

Answer a few questions about your pet's symptom, and our vet-created Symptom Checker will give you the most likely causes and next steps.

Jennifer Coates, DVM


Jennifer Coates, DVM


Dr. Jennifer Coates is an accomplished veterinarian, writer, editor, and consultant with years of experience in the fields of veterinary...

Help us make PetMD better

Was this article helpful?

Get Instant Vet Help Via Chat or Video. Connect with a Vet. Chewy Health