Pet Health Library

Limping: Causes and Treatments

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Background

Limping or lameness is a condition in which an animal’s gait (walk) is affected by a pain in one or more legs. Familiarizing yourself with the way your pet moves can help you notice when something doesn’t look right.

Dog holding up leg

Signs

The easiest way to recognize lameness is when your pet holds up a leg when standing or does not use a leg when walking. Less obvious signs include shifting the weight off the sore leg when standing or walking, licking a part of the leg repetitively, or a swelling of the bone or joint.

Possible Causes

Arthritis
Inflammation of one or more joints leads to pain and decreased ability to flex and extend a joint. It typically develops secondary to another condition, such as hip or elbow dysplasia, a ruptured cranial cruciate ligament (CCL), or trauma.

Cancer or Tumor
Cancer is a disease in which abnormal cells grow and reproduce, often in a mass called a tumor. These abnormal cells have the ability to spread to surrounding tissues or other areas in the body.

Cranial Cruciate Ligament (CCL) Rupture
The cranial cruciate ligament (CCL) attaches the femur (thigh bone) to the tibia (shin bone) and helps to stabilize the knee joint. A ruptured, or damaged, CCL can result in lameness, knee inflammation, and pain.

Elbow Dysplasia
Elbow dysplasia is a genetic condition defined as the abnormal development of the elbow joint. Elbow dysplasia can lead to lameness as well as arthritis in the joint.

Heart Disease
Cats with heart disease are prone to blood clots. These blood clots can lodge in the blood vessels supplying one of the legs. The most common are the hind legs, but occasionally a clot block blood flow in the right forelimb. Cats with a blood clot are very painful and often vocalize. This is an emergency situation.

Hip Dysplasia
Hip dysplasia is a condition defined as the abnormal development of the hip joint. As a result, the joint becomes loose and the ball of the femur will slip in and out of the hip socket. Hip dysplasia can lead to limping in a hind leg and hip pain as well as arthritis in the hip.

Hypertrophic Osteodystrophy (HOD)
Hypertrophic osteodystrophy (HOD) is a developmental disorder that typically affects large breed dogs when they are young. Dogs with HOD have inflammation at the ends of their long limb bones, specifically the radius and the ulna.

Intervertebral Disc Disease (IVDD)
The intervertebral discs are the cushions between the bones in the spinal cord. A damaged or herniated disc can compress the spinal cord or a nerve branching off the spinal cord which may result in limping, loss of coordination, or more seriously, the inability to walk or move.

Legg-Calvé-Perthes Disease
Legg-Calvé-Perthes Disease, also called aseptic necrosis of the femoral head, is the deterioration of the ball of the femur (thigh bone) caused by a lack of blood supply. This disease is typically seen in small breed dogs and might have similar signs to hip dysplasia, including limping on a hind leg and a painful hip.

Osteochondritis Dissecans (OCD)
Osteochondrosis is a developmental disorder that occurs in the shoulders, typically in rapidly growing medium to large breed dogs. It is characterized by an abnormal thickening of cartilage on the head of the shoulder joint. Osteochondritis dissecans (OCD) occurs when a flap of cartilage forms, which can become detached and lodged into the joint.

Panosteitis
Panosteitis is a condition that causes bone inflammation, typically in young, rapidly growing large-breed dogs.

Patellar Luxation
Patellar luxation, one of the most common orthopedic conditions in dogs, is the dislocation of the patella (knee cap) from its groove on the femur (thigh bone).

Tick borne disease
Several different infectious diseases carried by ticks can result in limping. These include Lyme disease, ehrlichiosis, anaplasmosis, and Rocky Mountain spotted fever. In addition to limping, these diseases cause systemic clinical signs including fever, loss of appetite, painful or swollen joints, swollen lymph nodes, and lethargy.

Trauma
An abscess due to a bite wound, a fractured knee or toe, lesions to the spinal cord, or even a broken/torn nail, may cause lameness.

Diagnosis

Your veterinarian will perform a general physical examination and an orthopedic examination to identify any changes or abnormalities causing the limping. The exam may include observing your pet resting, standing up, and walking to see which limbs are affected. Your veterinarian may also feel around your pet’s limbs to check for any swelling, pain, instability, reduced muscle mass, reduced range of motion, or grating sounds.

Treatment

Successful management of lameness requires treatment of the underlying condition or disease.

While lameness is rarely a sign of an emergency (unless accompanied by extreme pain or following trauma like being hit by a car), if lameness persists for more than a day or two or is accompanied by systemic illness, call to make an appointment with your veterinarian.

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