Limping, faltering, hobbling, gimping, wobbling. Many words describe lameness, or an abnormal gait, which is one of the most common reasons pets are presented to Groves Veterinary Clinic. Witnessing your pet limping can be disconcerting, and while some causes of lameness are urgent, not all require emergency veterinary attention. Below are four common reasons why pets limp, along with our recommendations for your pet who is exhibiting this abnormal behavior.

#1: Soft tissue trauma

Easily, the most common cause of lameness in pets is injury or trauma to one of their limb’s  soft tissue structures, which encompass any non-bony structure, including the skin, nails, muscle, ligaments, and tendons. Not surprisingly, pets frequently injure the paw pad, nail, or skin near the foot, simply because they rarely wear shoes or foot protection. Therefore, lacerations, torn toenails, insect stings, and embedded foreign material under the skin are common causes of pain and limping in dogs and cats. Mild muscle or ligament strains are also common, usually in active or over exuberant pets. In these cases, physical examination often reveals no obvious injury or trauma, and with rest and pain medication, limping often resolves in a couple of days.

Severe trauma to tendons, muscles, or ligaments can result in serious pain and profound lameness that requires care sooner than later. Rupture of the cranial cruciate ligament (CCL), or the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), as commonly referred to in people, is one example. CCL tears occur most frequently after strenuous exercise or play. Injured pets typically yelp in pain, and remain completely lame on the affected leg.

#2: Bone fracture

An obvious cause for lameness, broken bones or fractures occur in pets who suffer vehicular trauma, or sporting injuries, or who fall from high surfaces, to name a few. Any bone, including the long bones (i.e., the femur, tibia, or radius), pelvic bones, or small bones that comprise the toes and feet, can fracture. While most fractures remain closed (i.e., the fracture does not puncture the skin), open fractures (i.e., broken bones that penetrate the skin barrier) can occur, and need emergency treatment. Naturally, bone fractures usually cause significant pain, and complete lameness on the affected limb. Bone fracture treatment should never be delayed, especially when severe trauma is involved, as other serious, potentially life-threatening problems may also be present.

#3: Joint luxation

Luxation occurs when a joint dislocates, causing pain, discomfort, or simply an abnormal gait. While any joint can luxate, the patella (i.e., knee cap), hip, and elbow are commonly affected in pets. Hip dysplasia, which occurs when the head of the femur (i.e., thigh bone) doesn’t fit properly in the pelvic acetabulum (i.e., socket), is a common source of pain, limping, and eventual arthritis in dogs—especially German shepherds, Labrador retrievers, and other large-breed canines. Patellar luxation commonly causes lameness in smaller-breed dogs. Joint luxation can result from trauma or injury, congenital abnormalities, genetic factors, or a combination. In most cases, joint luxation is not emergent, but prolonged neglect can lead to unnecessary pain, arthritis, or degenerative joint disease (DJD).  

So, you’ve noticed your pet is limping. What’s next?

If your pet is walking abnormally, don’t panic, but do pay close attention. While some limping causes require emergency care, others can be monitored at home. If you notice any of the following, head to Groves Veterinary Clinic, or your nearest 24-hour veterinary emergency center immediately:

  • Your pet is dragging a limb on the ground, or lying or sitting and cannot get up. 
  • Your pet has an obvious dislocation or fracture. 
  • Your pet is vocalizing in pain. 
  • Other signs, such as lethargy, vomiting, or disorientation, are present.

Minor causes of limping, such as insect stings or small muscle strains, don’t typically need immediate attention, and can be watched at home with a little first aid, rest, and TLC, but generally, you should seek veterinary attention if the lameness doesn’t improve in 24 hours. Should professional care be necessary, gather as much information about your pet’s condition as possible, and be prepared to tell Dr. Groves if you witnessed an injury, what happened when your pet developed the limp, and how long ago. A little information goes a long way in helping determine the cause of your pet’s limp. 

At Groves Veterinary Clinic, we realize the severity of your pet’s condition may not be obvious. Therefore, if you are ever unsure whether you should book an appointment, never hesitate to contact our veterinary team. We are here to guide you, regardless of the cause of your pet’s lameness.