Lameness or limping in cats. Symptoms, Causes and treatments.
Lameness (or limping) in cats can be caused by several underlying reasons. Lameness is typically in response to injury or abnormal anatomy and your pet may or may not be in pain.
Lameness can affect one leg or several legs, and can be constant or come and go. It can be worse at certain times in the day, first thing in the morning, last thing at night, after exercise or after rest.
Our guide contains expert advice from qualified and registered UK veterinary nurses to help you choose the best course of action for your pet and help answer your question – why is my cat limping?
Symptoms of lameness & Common causes of lameness
Symptoms and presenting signs
• Refusing to place any weight on leg or limping
• Unable to walk or run normally
• Difficulty walking up or down the stairs, or jumping up onto heights
• Pain and general signs of discomfort
• Loss of muscle mass around affected leg
• Walking at a slower pace
• Not placing paw on the floor properly (known as knuckling)
• Swelling or abnormalities around the joints.
• Trauma to leg, broken bones, torn ligaments, dislocation
• Inflammatory diseases
• Congenital abnormalities (present at birth)
• Bone cancer
• Wounds on the foot pads
• Insect sting
• Broken or damaged claw
• Over – exercising (overexertion)
• A stone or thorn stuck in the pads
• Nerve damage
• Genetic disorders.
Hip Dysplasia can be a cause of lameness in cats, the incidence of this disorder is relatively rare in cats, but some breeds are more likely to have the genes for hip dysplasia than other breeds. Affected cats inherit the gene from both parents, even when neither parent has shown any outward predisposition to hip dysplasia. It is more common in purebreds, and more likely in female than male cats. Heavy boned cats, such as the Maine coon and the Persian have higher rates than most, but it can affect small boned cats as well. Some cats require surgery; the decision for whether your cat will undergo surgery will depend on your cat’s size and age. Very often there is no cure, so careful management of the condition under the care of a vet can help improve the quality of the cats’ life.
• Lameness in older cats
Lameness in older cats is often due to arthritis setting in. This is a very common condition but often unrecognized disorder in older cats. Unfortunately, recognizing arthritis in cats is challenging at best. Many cats hide their pain very effectively. While we may sometimes see cats limping or favouring one leg or another, more often than not our arthritic cats simply become less active. They spend more time sleeping and resting. They may be reluctant to jump onto surfaces that were easily accessible previously.
• Lameness in younger cats
Lameness in younger cats and kittens can be due to several reasons. One example could be inflammation of the bones (Panosteitis), this is a painful condition that affects the cat’s long leg bones and is characterized by limping and lameness. It can occur with any breed, but it is more common in medium- to large-sized cat breeds and young cats around 5 to 18 months in age.
• Weight management
Weight management is very important when it comes to preventing your cat becoming lame and if you think your cat may be overweight you could call the vet nursing team at PetGP https://pet-gp.co.uk/ for advice on this or contact your local vet practice and enquire about their weight clinic.
Diagnosis of lameness by your vet
Your vet will give your cat a thorough examination and take a full history from you. The vet will determine where your cat is most painful and check for any abnormalities of the bones or joints. Your vet may want to perform a few tests, including x-rays or even a blood test.
It will be important for a veterinary professional to know the age of your pet as there are specific complaints that affect kittens and young cats and older cats.
If the vet recommends an x-ray, then this will be performed under General Anaesthetic. This will allow the vet to move the limb about to get a good view without causing pain or discomfort. The cat will usually stay with the vet for a few hours and come home that same day depending on the diagnosis. When your vet has looked at the x-rays they will decide on the next course of action. Sometimes they may need to refer your cat onto a specialist vet such as an Orthopaedic vet or a Neurologist.
Treatment of lameness
The treatment of the condition will depend on the vet’s diagnosis.
Forms of treatment that can be managed at home could involve:-
• For minor causes of lameness (sprain) restricting your cat’s exercise or complete rest for a few days is usually adequate
• If the exact cause is not known, a period of exercise reduction together with anti-inflammatories and pain killers may be required to see if the lameness improves
• Weight management if your cat is overweight and contributing to the lameness.
In-patient treatment could involve:-
• For more serious causes (broken bones, slipped discs) orthopaedic or neurological surgery is required.
Prevention of lameness
Lameness can arise during normal everyday activity.
• Serious injuries such as being hit by a car or falling from a height can be avoided by keeping your cat indoors or putting safety locks on the windows
• Be aware of genetic issues that affect some pedigree breeds.
• Keep an eye on your cat’s weight
• Inspect their paws and pads regularly and remove any debris
• Limit how much you exercise/play with a cat that is still growing to prevent joint problems
• Elderly cats need less exercise and if you notice them slowing down seek veterinary advice in the first instance
• You may want to consider using nutritional supplements that contain glucosamine or chondroitin to help support the joints as the animal ages.
Frequently asked questions about cats limping
How can I tell if my cat is lame?
Your cat may be slowing down a bit when walking and may start struggling when they need to use the stairs or jumping up onto heights. You may notice him walking on three legs.
How can I tell if my cat has pulled a muscle?
If your cat has pulled a muscle you may notice him limping or walking on 3 legs. He may hold his leg up when he is standing still or sitting. He may also him appear quieter than normal and may go off his food if it is very sore.
How do I tell if my cat has cut its paw?
Inspect your cat’s paws regularly; look out for cracks in the surface of the pad. You may notice that your cat’s paw is bleeding or he could be licking his paw excessively. He might not want to put weight on it and he may growl if he is in pain.
How can I tell if my cat has broken a bone?
Your cat may be growling or crying out as a break or fracture of a bone is usually quite painful. They will probably be holding the leg up but may attempt to put a little weight on it. The leg may become swollen and will probably be sore to touch, if your cat can tolerate your touch then gently check for any heat coming from the leg. The leg may also appear floppy.
How can I tell if my cat has hip problems?
You might notice your cat limping or slowing down. He may have trouble going upstairs and downstairs and might be reluctant to jump up. He may have an abnormal gait (the way his back legs move when he walks), or the position of his back legs when he stands may look different. Some cats develop a swaying motion when walking if they have hip problems.
How do I tell which leg my cat is lame on?
It is sometimes difficult to tell which leg is causing your cat to be lame. The most obvious way is if the cat is not weight bearing or holding the affected limb up when he walks, sits or stands. If he can put weight on it then watch his whole body when he walks’. Gently touch your cat’s legs because you may feel some heat coming from the sore one and look at him when he is standing still as he may use the normal leg to lean on which would indicate the other side was painful.
Can I let my cat out if it has a limp?
You should rest your cat and keep indoors for at least 2 days if you notice a limp. Rest means not letting your cat jump up onto any heights and race around the house so limit play time too.
Is my cat in pain?
Signs of pain in a cat can vary greatly. You may hear your cat growling or crying. You may notice your cat is licking the affected area or sometimes an area nearby. Some cats go off their food and may be more clingy and attentive than normal. On the other hand, some cats will become more distant and want to be on their own if they are in pain. Some cats will often stop grooming themselves. Sometimes the subtlest changes in behaviour or demeanour are enough to tell a vigilant owner that their cat is in pain.
My cat is limping after exercise / playing.
If you notice a limp after exercising it may be that the cat is doing too much at once. You could try shorter periods of play time little and often, and if there is no improvement then you could call us at PetGP to help assess the lameness.
My cat is limping on its hind leg.
The most obvious sign of hind leg lameness is a little limp or hop when they are walking and running. Sometimes this can develop into them holding the leg up and not wanting to put weight on it. It could be a simple strain so try resting your cat for a day or so but if you think your cat is in pain then you should contact a vet.
My cat is limping on its foreleg.
You might have noticed your cat is reluctant to jump down from heights or is favouring one side more than the other. Have a look at the cat’s paw and check for any abnormalities such as swelling, heat or a wound. If there is nothing to see, try resting him for a day or calling us at PetGP https://pet-gp.co.uk/telephone-veterinary-nurse-service
One of our nurses could help assess the lameness to see if you need to contact a vet.
My cat is limping when it gets up after resting.
In older cats this can be a sign of arthritis. The joints become stiffer as the cat gets older. You may notice that after a few minutes of walking about the lameness improves. In cats that are still growing it can be the sign of other joint problems. At PetGP https://pet-gp.co.uk/telephone-veterinary-nurse-service
we can help assess the animal over the phone and let you know if we think you need to contact a vet.
Finding the cause of lameness in your cat.
As noted above, the causes of lameness in cats can be wide ranging.
At PetGP our UK based veterinary nurses follow strict guidelines laid out by our veterinary director and ask a series of questions that determine the relative seriousness of your pet’s condition.
This process will hopefully rule out the more serious cases (which must be dealt with by a vet) and leads to advice on what you should do next for your pet. If appropriate, our experienced and knowledgeable UK veterinary nurses will give advice relevant to your pet’s condition based on your answers.
• Our UK based Registered Veterinary Nurses will ask you several questions designed to assess (triage) the condition
• You will need to be with the cat as we will ask you to check a few things while you are on the phone to us
• We will ask if you how long the cat has been lame for and if you know how the injury happened
• We will ask you to touch the affected leg and feel for any swelling, heat or pain and to look at the leg and paw in case there are any cuts or abnormalities to see.
Call us at PetGP or visit https://pet-gp.co.uk/ if you are unsure or worried and our expert nurses will advise you on what to do next. If the situation does not merit a trip to the vet, we will give advice for managing the situation at home.
If the lameness is caused by a simple sprain or strain, then 48 hours of rest and restricted exercise may be enough to improve the situation drastically.
Your cat may have a small cut on his pad which, if not bleeding or infected, may be fine to treat at home with some rest and a clean with saline solution.
If the situation is more serious we will advise that you contact your vet.