Dog Limping: Possible Causes and Treatments

It is a general misconception that if a dog isn't crying out or whining, they are not in pain. But a limp is a sure sign of pain, indicating that your dog doesn't want to put weight on the leg.

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Did you know that dog limping is a common sign of pain?

Dogs are usually active, enthusiastic household members, and as a result, they are prone to injuries. These can range from muscle strains to broken bones to systemic infections.

When your dog is limping it’s time to consult with a veterinarian. They may have you rest your dog and monitor at home for 24-48 hours depending on the severity of the problem. If the limp doesn’t improve or worsens, they will likely have you come in for an appointment.

It is important to remember not to use over-the-counter remedies for pain in this case. While aspirin and acetaminophen (Tylenol) can be used safely in dogs, improper dosing can lead to bleeding problems and liver failure. Never use these medications without first consulting your veterinarian.

Only A Vet Can Determine Why Your Dog is Limping

When you see the vet, a thorough physical examination is necessary to determine the cause of your dog’s limp. A head-to-toe examination should include vital signs, palpation of lymph nodes, auscultation of the heart and lungs, handling of the painful limb, and observation of your dog at a walk. It is important to isolate which limb and which area of the limb is affected, as this can help determine possible causes.

Causes of dog limping are extremely varied. Broad categories include soft tissue strains or tears (ligaments, tendons, and muscles), infectious diseases such as Ehrlichia and Lyme disease, inflammatory conditions such as panosteitis, vascular conditions like blood clots, and orthopedic problems such as fractures. Further, these can be divided between front limbs and rear limbs. Most lameness problems are similar between the front and back legs, but there are some specific problems such as a torn cranial cruciate ligament that can only happen in the rear leg.

The inciting cause can often be narrowed down with a history as well as the age and breed of your dog (this is called the signalment). For instance, a German shepherd puppy with acute onset of shifting leg lameness would be a strong suspect for panosteitis—a common inflammatory condition of the breed. An older dog with a sudden, painful, non-weight bearing lameness of one leg would raise suspicion for a bone tumor like osteosarcoma and a resulting fractured bone. A young limping Coonhound with a history of tick exposure, fever, and abnormalities on bloodwork might be suffering from Rocky Mountain spotted fever, a frequently encountered tick-borne illness.

dog limping on beach

Tests for Limping Dogs and Treatment

Depending on what your veterinarian finds, they may recommend several different tests including bloodwork, tick disease testing, and/or x-rays. They will also decide on the best treatment options.

Common medications used in the management of pain related to dog limping include the NSAID family of drugs (non-steroid anti-inflammatory drugs) such as carprofen, meloxicam, firocoxib, and deracoxib. These are very effective for controlling pain, have been in use for a long time in veterinary medicine, and have a well-known side effect profile.

There is a new medication called Galliprant that is available for management of pain. While technically it is an NSAID, it has a more specific area of activity in inflammation and has less reported side effects. Tramadol is another medication that may be prescribed. Whether this is effective for pain control has been recently debated in veterinary medicine, so it should never be used as the only pain relief.

Your veterinarian will also prescribe resting your dog. This will include minimal exercise—leash walks only for bathroom purposes. In some cases, icing or applying heat can help. The best approach depends on the cause.

Things to Remember When Your Dog is Limping

If your dog begins to limp, check in with your veterinarian, rest your dog to allow recovery, and avoid over-the-counter medications without first consulting your vet. The causes of limping are vast and varied, and with the guidance of a thorough history and physical exam, your vet should be able to help your canine companion.

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