Dogs are meant to be athletic, and you usually will find them running, jumping, and roughhousing with their companions or toys. However, their exuberant nature can cause injuries that result in a limp. Or, your giant-breed dog may suffer from congenital abnormalities and poor skeletal structure, or develop osteosarcoma later in life. Finding the underlying cause of your dog’s limp is critical for appropriate, effective treatment. Read on to learn why your pooch may be limping, and how you can help them.

Causes of limping in dogs

Limping in dogs is caused by an illness or injury. Typically, the root cause of a dog’s lameness is discomfort, but the inability to move can also cause a limp. Some of the most common reasons for limping in dogs include:

  • Cut on the paw
  • Object (e.g., thorn, stick) stuck in the paw
  • Torn nail
  • Animal or insect bite or sting
  • Muscle sprain or strain
  • Ligament tear (i.e., cranial cruciate ligament tear)
  • Tendon injury
  • Joint dislocation
  • Patellar luxation
  • Fracture
  • Panosteitis (i.e., growing pains)
  • Congenital malformation
  • Hip or elbow dysplasia
  • Arthritis
  • Intervertebral disc disease
  • Degenerative myelopathy
  • Tick-borne disease (e.g., Lyme disease)
  • Immune-mediated polyarthritis
  • Cancer (e.g., osteosarcoma)

With such a long list of potential limping causes—which by no means includes all possibilities—an accurate diagnosis is critical for effective treatment.

Diagnosing limping in dogs

A simple physical exam can uncover the cause of your dog’s lameness, or extensive diagnostic testing may be required. Necessary tests may include:

  • Physical exam
  • Digital imaging (X-rays, ultrasound, CT scan, MRI)
  • Blood work (e.g., complete blood count, blood chemistry profile)
  • Tick-borne disease testing
  • Biopsy
  • Joint fluid analysis

Treating limping in dogs

The reason your dog is limping will determine their treatment, which may include any combination of the following therapies:

  • Rest — In some cases, your dog’s limping will resolve with rest and time.
  • Heat and ice — An injury can benefit by first applying ice to reduce inflammation, and then heat to soothe stiff muscles and painful joints.
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) — NSAIDs are typically the first line of defense for relieving lameness in dogs, although steroids can be used first.
  • Pain medication — In addition to NSAIDs, other drugs, including opioids and gabapentin, can relieve pain by working in a complementary fashion to reduce inflammation and ease discomfort.
  • Joint injections — Injections of various products (i.e., steroids, platelet-rich plasma, stem cells, or hyaluronic acid) into the affected joint can repair the problem.
  • Alternative therapies — Alternative therapies, such as acupuncture, chiropractic care, laser therapy, hydrotherapy, and physical rehabilitation, can restore your dog’s joints, muscles, and body to good health, improve their mobility, and alleviate pain.
  • Surgery — In some cases, such as a bone fracture or ligament rupture, surgical repair is required.

Preventing limping in dogs

You cannot always prevent your pet from injury or illness, but you can minimize their lameness risk. Here are a few tips for preventing your dog from limping:

  • Weight management — Keeping your pet in a lean body condition is one of the best ways to preserve their joints and prevent limping. Each additional pound adds pressure to your dog’s joints, so overweight dogs are much more likely to suffer from orthopedic injuries or chronic disease.
  • Appropriate activity — Daily exercise is important for keeping your dog’s joints and muscles strong, but the “wrong” kind of exercise can do more harm than good. For example, if your dog regularly performs high-impact activities (e.g., jumping and rough play), they put more wear-and-tear on their joints, and increase their risk for muscle sprains, ligament tears, and arthritis development. Stick to low-impact, but equally stimulating, activities, such as scent work, swimming, or modified hiking.
  • Joint supplements — Beginning a joint supplement regimen when your dog is young with healthy joints can help prevent future joint and limping issues. Ingredients like glucosamine, chondroitin, and green-lipped mussels are known for their chondroprotective qualities and can preserve joint function.
  • Mobility assistance — While your tiny dachshund may feel tall and mighty as they make a flying leap onto the couch, assisting them to easily scale furniture by installing stairs or ramps will prevent them from jumping and protect their spine and joints.

Although a minor limp may resolve on its own, the cause is impossible to diagnose without a physical exam. Give our Wales Animal Clinic team a call to schedule an appointment for your limping dog. We will get them back on all four paws in no time!