Web Only Article October 29, 2018

Dog Limping: Possible Causes and Treatments

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

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

A dog might also limp if something sharp is caught between his toes, like a piece of seashell. Check those paws after walks on any terrain - even concrete!

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.

Comments (6)

I had a friend whose boxer wouldn't stand on one of his rear legs. After a vet visit, it was determined that the poor dog's pain came from his bowels due to his owner feeding him chicken bones! (A dangerous practice.) Fortunately the dog was ultimately able to pass the bones and then he was fine.

Posted by: springerlover | November 19, 2018 10:02 AM    Report this comment

Another consideration is Valley Fever for those living in the Southwest US. As scent work is becoming more popular, more attention needs to be given to this fungal disease. The University of AZ is working to develop a vaccine.

Posted by: Wendy Spradlin | November 18, 2018 1:43 PM    Report this comment

My 3 dogs live for our off-leash hikes in the foothills, generally 2-3 times a week. Last year my 8 year old akbash began limping in a hind leg really badly after a hike. Unfortunately she tore her ACL. She was seen by vets at 2 different clinics. 1 suggested surgery. Due to the serious expense of surgery with no guarantee of success and how difficult confining her would have been following the surgery (strong willed barely suggests her personality), I decided to treat it conservatively. Her recovery was very slow, but she has recovered about 80% of the joint function. She is as active as she was prior to the injury and does not seem to be in any pain. She was prescribed meloxicam, an nsaid, for pain and inflamation for a few months after the injury.

Posted by: abbeyrhode | November 18, 2018 1:24 PM    Report this comment

Always very important to have your dog thoroughly examined. We went with the first option when he started limping which was glucosamine. That did not work so we tried another form of it. When that didn't work, we tried an anti-inflammatory medication and x-rays. Xrays did not show anything and anti-inflammatory medicine did not help. We tried nerve pain medicine which also did not work. Finally we had to get an MRI done. It turned out there is cancer in my dog's vertebrae. Chemo and radiation are not recommended because of the type of cancer. I really wish we had found out about it sooner so we could've started the natural treatments we are trying now earlier. As it was, we waited to do the MRI for over a year. Don't wait that long. Get your dog checked out!

Posted by: vespertyne2@gmail.com | November 17, 2018 10:48 PM    Report this comment

I'm also surprised that laser therapy isn't mentioned.

We have an 11 1/2 year old Lab mix who limps. His vet said that it was most likely arthritis instead of a soft tissue problem. I'm surprised that arthritis wasn't mentioned either.

Posted by: DreamWeaver | November 17, 2018 10:57 AM    Report this comment

While it is certainly important to have a veterinarian rule out any of the possible pathologies mentioned as a cause for a limp, I am surprised that chiropractic isn't mentioned as a treatment once these have been ruled out. As a chiropractor certified by the American Veterinary Chiropractic Association in animal chiropractic I can attest to countless cases that fully recover with chiropractic treatment when rest and meds have failed to resolve the problem.

Posted by: drgarber | November 17, 2018 10:48 AM    Report this comment

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