Why Is My Dog Limping?

Published: January 29, 2021
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At some point, you’re likely to see your dog limping. It can be scary and concerning because it’s not easy to figure out what caused the limping in the first place.

Limping in dogs is never normal, but some of its associated health problems are more serious than others. This guide will break down everything you need to know about dog limping and what you can do to help your dog recover their mobility.

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What to Do if Your Dog Is Limping

If you notice your dog limping, there are three questions you should ask yourself to determine whether it’s a potential emergency.

1. How long has your dog been limping?

Sometimes a dog may limp for a few moments and then be fine. Other times, a dog may start limping and it sticks around or gets progressively worse. In other cases, a dog may limp on and off.

Chronic Dog Limping

By definition, a chronic limp has been present for two weeks or more.

Perhaps your dog’s limp was barely discernible a few weeks ago, but now it’s more obvious. Or maybe you thought your dog’s limp would go away with rest, but it hasn’t.

Whatever the scenario, if a dog’s limp hasn’t resolved in a week or two, it’s time for a veterinarian to figure out what is going on. A chronic limp is almost never an emergency, but you should make the appointment as soon as possible.

Acute Dog Limping

If your dog has just started limping, this is called an acute limp. If this is the case, you need to answer the next two questions.

2. How bad is the limp?

Determine whether your dog’s acute (new) limp is mild or severe.

Mild Dog Limping

A mild limp means your dog is still using the leg but not putting as much weight on it.

If your dog has just developed a mild limp, but appears comfortable and healthy in all other ways, it’s not unreasonable to encourage them to take it easy for a few days and see what happens.

If your dog doesn’t start improving quickly or isn’t back to normal in a week or two, make an appointment with your veterinarian.

Severe Dog Limping

When severely limping, dogs may refuse to bear weight on the affected limb, or they may just barely tap their toes on the ground.

While severe dog limping should be evaluated by a veterinarian quickly, you should take your dog’s personality into account. Some dogs will avoid bearing any weight on a mildly sore limb while others are stoic and will walk almost normally even though they’re in a lot of pain.

The final question will help you determine if your dog’s severe limp warrants a trip to the emergency clinic or if you can wait to see your regular veterinarian the next day.

3. Does your dog have other symptoms?

Evaluate your dog’s well-being. Is your dog displaying other signs of pain?

Here are some signs that your dog should see a veterinarian right away.

Extreme Pain

  • Vocalization

  • Trembling

  • Behavior changes (like hiding, unwillingness to move, fear, or aggression)

Other Signs of an Emergency

  • Bleeding

  • An obvious fracture or dislocation

  • Limb dragging

  • Large swellings

Other Worrisome Symptoms

  • Lethargy

  • Disorientation

  • High fever

  • Vomiting

  • Trouble breathing

It’s always better to be safe than sorry. When in doubt about your dog’s condition, call your vet or a nearby after-hours clinic for advice.

How to Tell Which Leg a Dog Is Limping On

When dogs have mild limps or problems affecting multiple legs, it can be difficult to determine which leg they are favoring. Keep in mind that dogs want to take weight off the leg that hurts them the most.

Front-Leg Lameness

With a front leg lameness, dogs will raise their head up when the sore leg touches the ground and lower their heads when bearing weight on the good leg.

Hind-Leg Lameness

With a hind-leg lameness, dogs will lean forward to take weight of their back end, and you should see their tail or affected hip rise when the sore leg touches the ground.

What Causes Limping in Dogs?

Many different injuries and illnesses can lead to limping in dogs. Sometimes the cause is obvious, but in other cases, a thorough veterinary workup may be necessary to get to the bottom of things.

General Causes of Dog Limping

Common causes of limping in dogs include:

  • Bone fractures

  • Ligament sprains or ruptures

  • Muscle strains

  • Wounds

  • Joint dislocations

  • Insect bites and stings

  • Bruising

  • Paw pad trauma

  • Torn nails

  • Imbedded foreign material

  • Bacterial or fungal infections of soft tissues, bones, or joints

  • Developmental disorders

  • Inflammatory conditions

  • Autoimmune disorders

  • Degenerative joint disease (also known as osteoarthritis)

  • Tick-borne diseases

  • Cancer affecting soft tissues, bones, or joints

  • Damage to or illness that affects the nervous system

Many common causes of dog limping can affect any leg, but others are seen only in the front or back legs.

Dog Limping on a Front Leg or Paw

Problems that affect only the front legs include:

  • Shoulder instability

  • Osteochondritis dissecans (OCD) of the shoulder joint (joint disease where cartilage does not develop into bone)

  • Biceps tenosynovitis (inflammation or injury in the biceps)

  • Supraspinatus tendinopathy (shoulder injury)

  • Elbow dysplasia

  • Brachial plexus tumor (shoulder area)

Dog Limping on a Back Leg or Paw

Problems that affect only the hind legs include:

Is Your Dog Limping On and Off or After Specific Activities?

The timing of a dog’s limp also provides some information about its possible cause.

Your Dog Is Limping After Walking or Running

When dogs exercise more than they’re used to, it’s not unusual for them to develop muscle soreness.

Dogs who suddenly start limping after walking or running may also have a:

  • Wound

  • Bruise

  • Torn nail

  • Foreign material imbedded somewhere

  • Ligament sprain or rupture

Your Dog Is Limping After Rest

Dogs with osteoarthritis typically appear to be at their most painful when they first get up in the morning or after resting.

Moving around for a while seems to relieve at least some of their discomfort.

Your Dog Is Limping On and Off

Some limps come and go.

Osteoarthritis may worsen in cold and damp weather. Injuries to muscles, tendons, and ligaments will often improve with rest but may return once a dog’s activity level increases again.

Immune-mediated polyarthritis, tick-borne infections, and panosteitis (a developmental disease seen in young dogs) are sometimes associated with lameness that seems to move from leg to leg.

Your Dog Is Limping After TPLO Surgery

It is normal for dogs to limp after leg surgery.

For example, a dog who has undergone a tibial plateau leveling osteotomy (TPLO) to treat a cruciate ligament rupture generally begins bearing some weight on the affected leg within a week or so after surgery.

Over the next few weeks, the limping should gradually improve, but if your dog is too active, the limp may temporarily worsen. Call your veterinarian if a postoperative limp is severe or doesn’t start improving with a day or two of rest.

Can I Give My Dog Aspirin for a Limp?

As tempting as it may be, NEVER give your dog the following without talking with your veterinarian first:

All medications, including aspirin, are associated with potentially severe side effects when used at the wrong dose or in the wrong situations.

If your dog’s limp is bad enough that you think pain relief is necessary, call your veterinarian.

Treatment for Limping in Dogs

Determining why your dog is limping is the first step to providing the right treatment.

Diagnosing the Cause of Dog Limping

Veterinarians start the diagnostic process by taking a thorough health history, so be prepared to answer the following questions:

  • How long has your dog been limping?

  • Can you identify a specific event that may have initiated the limp?

  • Does the limp come and go, or is it present all the time?

  • What type of treatment have you tried at home? Has it worked?

  • Have you noticed any other changes to your dog’s health or behavior?

Next, the veterinarian will perform a physical and orthopedic examination as well as a neurological exam, if necessary. X-rays (radiographs) are often needed to reach a diagnosis. Some cases also benefit from bloodwork, a CT scan, an MRI, a joint fluid analysis, or other laboratory tests.

What Are the Treatment Options for Dog Limping?

The veterinarian will then make treatment recommendations based on your dog’s diagnosis and overall health.

Treatment for Mild Cases of Dog Limping

In some cases, pain relief and rest may be all that is needed.

Veterinarians often prescribe nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories for mild to moderate pain, such as:

These medications are safer for dogs than those designed for human use.

Treatment for Dog Limping Due to Joint Pain

When joint health is in question, many veterinarians also recommend the use of nutritional supplements such as:

Other Treatments for Dog Limping

Depending on the cause of the limp, other treatments recommendations may include:

  • Additional medications to manage pain, reduce inflammation, treat infection, and/or suppress the immune system

  • Bandages, splints, braces, or casts

  • Surgery

  • Chemotherapy or radiotherapy for cancer

  • Acupuncture

  • Physical therapy

  • Stem cell therapy

  • Cold laser treatments

  • Neuromuscular electrical stimulation

  • Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation

  • Therapeutic ultrasound

  • Extracorporeal shockwave therapy

  • Hyperbaric oxygen therapy

  • The use of assistive devices like harnesses, slings, prosthetic limbs, or wheelchairs

  • Weight management

You and your veterinarian are a team. Working together, you can design a treatment plan that will soon help your dog feel better.