Lameness (or limping) in dogs 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 just one leg or multiple 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.
This guide contains expert advice from qualified and registered veterinary nurses to help you choose the best course of action for your pet and help answer your question; why is my dog 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 into the car
- 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
- Hip or elbow dysplasia
- 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.
A common cause of lameness in some breeds such as Labrador Retrievers and German Shepherd Dogs is Hip or Elbow Dysplasia. This is a genetic condition that causes the joint to become malformed. This causes lameness and pain from a relatively young age. Some dogs require surgery such as a hip replacement and some dogs may have to take medicine for the rest of their lives. 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 dog’s life. Most reputable breeders now do screening for the conditions to help reduce the chance of it being inherited.
- Lameness in older dogs
Lameness in older dogs is often due to arthritis setting in. This is a very common condition in older dogs and affects the joints, mainly the knee, shoulder and hips. Elderly dogs may benefit from nutritional supplements, anti-inflammatories and complimentary therapies such as hydrotherapy, physiotherapy and acupuncture.
- Lameness in younger dogs
Lameness in younger dogs and puppies can be due to several reasons. One example could be over exercising – the bones and joints in puppies and young dogs don’t properly form until they are passed puberty, so too much exercise can adversely affect their growth!
- Weight management
Weight management is very important when it comes to preventing your dog becoming lame and if you think your dog may be overweight you could call the vet nursing team at PetGP 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 dog a thorough examination and take a full history from you. The vet will determine where your dog 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 puppies and young dogs and older dogs.
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 dog 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 dog 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 dog’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 dog 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 dog on a lead until it is safe to let them off.
- Be aware of genetic issues that affect some pedigree breeds.
- Keep an eye on your dog’s weight.
- Inspect their paws and pads regularly and remove any debris.
- Use foot covers or a barrier ointment on the pads during the winter months to stop the salt and grit hurting them.
- Limit how much you exercise a dog that is still growing to prevent joint problems.
- Elderly dogs 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 dog limping
How can I tell if my dog is lame?
Your dog may be slowing down a bit on walks and may start struggling when walking up the stairs. You may notice him walking on three legs or doing a little skip when he walks.
How can I tell if my dog has pulled a muscle?
If your dog 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. You may also hear him whine or cry and may go off his food if it is very sore.
How do I tell if my dog has cut its paw?
Inspect your dog’s paws regularly, look out for cracks in the surface of the pad. You may notice that your dog is bleeding or he could be licking his paw excessively. He might not want to put weight on it and he may whine or cry if he is in pain.
How can I tell if my dog has broken a bone?
Your dog may be whining or crying 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 dog 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 dog has hip problems?
You might notice your dog limping or slowing down on walks. 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 dogs develop a swaying motion when walking if they have hip problems.
How do I tell which leg my dog is lame on?
It is sometimes difficult to tell which leg is causing your dog to be lame. The most obvious way is if the dog 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 – sometimes a dog will lift his head slightly when he uses the sore leg and put his head down when he uses the leg that is fine. Gently touch your dog’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 walk my dog if it has a limp?
You should rest your dog for at least two days if you notice a limp. Rest means lead exercise only and short 5 -10 minute walks at a time. Stay with them in the garden and even put a lead on to restrict their exercise and help them if they need to go upstairs, downstairs or jump up anywhere (car, sofa, bed etc).
Is my dog in pain?
Signs of pain in a dog can vary greatly. Some dogs are very stoical and brave while others are more delicate. You may hear your dog whining, crying or whimpering. You may notice the dog is licking the affected area or sometimes an area nearby. Some dogs go off their food and may be more clingy and attentive than normal. On the other hand, some dogs will become more distant and want to be on their own if they are in pain. Sometimes the subtlest changes in behaviour or demeanour are enough to tell a vigilant owner that their dog is in pain.
My dog is limping after exercise / walking.
If you notice a limp after exercising it may be that the dog is doing too much at once. You could try shorter walks more often, rather than one long walk and if there is no improvement then you could call us at PetGP to help assess the lameness.
My dog is limping on its hind leg.
The most obvious sign of hind leg lameness is a little hop or skip 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 dog for a day or so but if you think your dog is in pain then you should contact a vet.
My dog is limping on its foreleg.
You might have noticed your dog is reluctant to go on walks or is favouring one side more than the other. Have a look at the dog’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
One of our nurses could help assess the lameness to see if you need to contact a vet.
My dog is limping when it gets up after resting.
In older dogs this can be a sign of arthritis. The joints become stiffer as the dog gets older. You may notice that after a few minutes of walking about the lameness improves. In dogs that are still growing it can be the sign of other joint problems. At PetGP 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 dog
As noted above, the causes of lameness in dogs 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 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 dog 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 dog 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 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 dog 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.