Seeing your four-legged friend suddenly preferring a three-legged mode of travel can be alarming. Dogs and cats may favor one leg over another for a variety of causes, from benign to life-threatening. Here is a basic guide to pet lameness, including common causes, and what you can expect during your visit to Neighborhood Veterinary Centers

Walk this way—lameness in pets

While the classic Lassie-like image of a dog or cat holding up one paw is unmistakable, lameness (i.e., a disabled or impaired limb) can range from subtle to severe. And, depending on the extent of the pet’s injury and pain, the visible presentation may vary.

For example, in addition to non-weight-bearing lameness (i.e., the Lassie image above), other forms include:

  • Favoring — Pets may appear to lean away from the affected limb to redistribute their weight to the remaining three, which is especially noticeable while standing.
  • Toe-touching (i.e., partial weight bearing) — Pets may use the limb only lightly during the gait cycle.
  • Shifting — Pets with more than one affected leg may favor alternate legs. 
  • Bilateral — When both front or back legs are injured or painful (e.g., bilateral hip dysplasia), pets may appear weak or unsteady.

Small changes in your pet’s stance or movement can indicate lameness, weakness, or pain. The sooner your pet is diagnosed, the more rapidly our team can ease their pain, address their injury, and ideally, improve their long-term prognosis. When in doubt, get your pet checked out.

Everyday I’m shufflin’—7 causes for pet lameness

Pets experience lameness for a possible hundred reasons, which is why visiting Neighborhood Veterinary Centers for a complete examination and work-up is essential. Here we outline only the most common causes for limb lameness in dogs and cats, which include: 

  • Arthritis — Although arthritis is often considered a senior pet disease, this painful joint condition is now known to affect nearly 40% of dogs and cats over a year old. Arthritis can occur in any joint, and can be caused by trauma, infectious diseases, age-related changes, or an auto-immune response. An affected joint is usually stiff and painful to move, although this improves as the pet warms up. 
  • Orthopedic problems — Joint incongruity or misalignment (e.g., hip or elbow dysplasia, patellar luxation) causes weakness and pain in affected pets, who may successfully compensate for their injury by adapting their movement or posture. However, these methods are temporary. As muscles atrophy and the discomfort worsens, pets may limp, bunny hop (i.e., move both back legs at once), or appear to skip or kick out during their normal gait pattern.
  • Soft tissue injury — Tendons, ligaments, muscles, and other soft tissues aid in movement and support and protect the joint itself. When these structures are strained, sprained, or ruptured (i.e., torn), the joint’s biomechanics are altered and proper movement is painful. Common injuries include cranial cruciate ligament (CCL) rupture and iliopsoas strain in dogs.
  • Bone fracture or trauma — Fractures most commonly occur after obvious trauma, such as being hit by a car, or a fall from height. Pets typically do not bear weight on the affected limb, and may have unseen internal injuries.
  • Broken toenail, foreign body, or toe injuries — Paw injuries are a common reason for limping in pets. The most frequently reported injuries include broken toenails—especially the dewclaw—foreign objects (e.g., grass awns, seeds, fishing hooks, glass), and dislocated or broken digits (i.e., toes). Tumors around the nail base or on the digit can also cause limping. 
  • Cancer — Osteosarcoma is a bone cancer most commonly found in the long bones (e.g., femur, humerus, radius) of large-breed dogs. Nerve sheath tumors—a type of soft tissue sarcoma—can grow along nerve bundles, such as the brachial plexus, and affect the pet’s natural movement. Both cancers cause pain, instability, and muscle atrophy along the limb, forcing pets to limp in an attempt to avoid discomfort.
  • Panosteitis and hypertrophic osteodystrophy (HOD) in puppies — Collectively referred to as “growing pains,” these temporary conditions cause pain, swelling, and lameness along the long bones and growth plates in developing dogs. The condition can flare at any time and may affect one or more limbs, resulting in a shifting leg lameness. 
  • Spinal problems — Because the nerves from the spine travel through the legs, spinal disorders (e.g., disc herniation, intervertebral disc disease) of the neck and back can cause front or hind limb lameness. 

Walk away—determining lameness causes in pets

When you bring your limping pet to Neighborhood Veterinary Centers, our expert team will work to determine the source of your pet’s pain, beginning with the standard examination, and also an assessment of your pet standing, walking, and trotting. We may need advanced diagnostic imaging (e.g., digital X-rays, computed tomography [CT]) and testing (e.g., tissue biopsy or fine needle aspirate) to determine and confirm a diagnosis. Sedation is often necessary to ensure your pet’s complete comfort and safety during the diagnostic work-up.

This is not a comprehensive list of causes for pet lameness, and your limping pet must be evaluated for an accurate diagnosis. Our Neighborhood Veterinary Centers team can schedule an appointment at your preferred location and help your pet get back on their paws.