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Why Is My Dog Limping?

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Watching your dog limp can be extremely hard to watch — and fix. Sometimes, it can come on at a moment’s notice, other times it can be a slow progression. Regardless, seeing your dog limp is agonizing.

While a vet visit is almost always necessary, knowing what causes your dog to limp may give you a bit of peace of mind and a better understanding of what to expect.

The Different Types of Limping

Sudden Limping

When a dog suddenly starts to limp, it is referred to as an acute limp. It can be caused by some sort of injury (e.g. sprain, pulled muscle) or trauma. At times it can be a mild injury where a dog still uses her leg but doesn’t place too much weight on it. Other times, it can be more severe, and a dog can’t put any weight on it, or will barely touch the ground.

Chronic Limping

Chronic limping gradually occurs over time (some define it as two weeks or more). Often, it is due to a degenerative or chronic condition such as dysplasia or osteoarthritis. It can start out mildly and progress as time goes on. Again, a visit to the vet is needed.

Related: Everything You Need to Know About Dealing With Joint Issues in Your Dogs

How To Determine Which Leg a Dog Is Limping On

Front Leg Lameness

If a dog hurt one of her front legs, it is known as front leg lameness. When a dog suffers from front leg lameness, she will raise her head then the sore leg touches the ground while walking. Additionally, a dog will likely lower her head when she is bearing weight on the hurt leg.

Hind Leg Lameness

When a dog has hurt one of her hind legs, it is called hind leg lameness. If a dog has hurt one of her hind legs, she will try to lean forward while walking to take the weight off of her back legs. You can often tell which hind leg is injured by seeing which affected hip rises when weight is placed on the leg.

The Seven Main Reasons Why a Dog Limps

According to vets, lameness is one of the most frequent reasons people bring their dogs in for a visit. But determining what causes limping isn’t always clear. Here are the most common reasons for why a dog is limping.

1. Injury

An injury is one of the most common reasons a dog is limping, especially for those who are active.

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“Injuries can happen anywhere, but most commonly happen outdoors because that is when the pet is more likely to be running, chasing a ball or playing hard with other dogs, and walking or slipping on rougher terrain,” says Dr. Heather Venkat, Arizona’s acting state public health veterinarian.

Injuries include joint trauma, broken bones, dislocations, fractures, sprains, spinal injuries, and ligament tears. Each of these different types can either be minor or severe.  A veterinarian can properly assess the issue and determine a plan of action

2. Joint Disease

A few different types of joint diseases can cause gradual wear and tear on a dog’s joints, which may cause limping. Intervertebral disc disease, Lyme disease, and osteoarthritis are a few of the more well-known culprits.

Additionally, a dog could also develop hip or elbow dysplasia. Although this isn’t technically a disease, the condition, caused by an abnormal development of the joint, can lead to arthritis and other joint issues that may result in limping.   

If a dog has a joint disease, a veterinarian may suggest surgery or provide prescription medication. Everyday supplements dog parents can give at home, may also help relieve pain and promote mobility.  

3. Bone Disease

As is the case with joint diseases, bone diseases can cause your dog to limp. The most common ones are:

Osteochondrosis: are defects in the cartilage in which the sponge-like material either develops abnormally or separates from the bone. 

Ununited Anconeal Process: This disease impacts the forearms due to a defect of small bone type that is found on the back.  

Panosteitis: Often called growing pains or long bone pain, it is an inflammation on the long bones.  

In many cases, if bone disease is caught quickly enough, your dog will have a better chance of surviving and enjoying a higher quality of life.

4. Bone Cancer

Tumors can either begin in the bone or can spread from other sites. Osteosarcoma is the most common type of bone cancer in dogs, with it accounting for over 95% of cases. It is an aggressive type that spreads and unfortunately, can be deadly.

5. Torn ACL

An ACL ligament is found in a dog’s knee, and this ligament helps stabilize a dog’s leg when she’s walking. Usually, a torn ACL is seen most often with very active medium and large breed dogs.

Should you notice that your dog is limping after participating in activities such as playing fetch or running, it could be due to a torn ACL. Unfortunately, one of the only ways to fix an ACL injury in a dog is through a surgical procedure.

6. Broken Leg

Often a broken leg is one of the most obvious reasons why a dog is limping. Sometimes the leg will have a fracture, while other times, the bone actually breaks through the skin.

When you believe your dog has broken its leg, you need to immediately take it to the vet. A vet will likely order X-rays before deciding on the best course of action.

7. Foreign Object Embedded In a Paw

Another common reason a dog might be limping is something becomes lodged in its paw. Sticks, thorns, nails, glass, and rocks are the usual suspects.

Sometimes upon examining the paw, you can see the foreign object and remove it on your own. If you can’t get the object out, struggle to find it, or your dog doesn’t want you to get near it, head to the vet.

When You Should Seek Out a Vet

The answer is almost always.

“The most important thing is to think about what the pet was doing right before the limp. If, for example, you just saw him slip on the deck of your pool, it may just be a minor sprain. If there are no obvious signs of injury and the pet is acting normal otherwise, you can see if your dog improves over the next day or so,” says Venkat. “If the limp does not improve, or if your dog is getting worse, call your vet.”

Additionally, if there is obvious trauma to your dog’s leg or paw causing the limping, you need to seek a vet immediately. This is because the longer you leave a severe injury unattended, the worse your chances are of receiving a positive outcome for your dog.

Moreover, you need to remember that you should never give your dog any over-the-counter medications that humans would take for injuries. Most human pain medications are incredibly toxic to dogs and can cause irreparable damage. A veterinarian can prescribe medication suitable for your dog’s limp.

Related: When Pups Eat Dirt and Other Bizarre Things: Dealing With Pica in Dogs

This article is for informational purposes only. It is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice.

By Jason Collins

Jason Collins is a freelance writer living in Las Vegas, NV. When he's not somewhere trying to beat the heat, he can be found volunteering at different animal rescues.

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