Lameness (Limping) in Dogs: Causes, Treatment, and More

Author: K. Marie Altoby K Marie Alto Updated 9 min read

Lameness (Limping) in Dogs: Causes, Treatment, and More

The term "lame" isn't just a schoolyard insult from the 90s; it's a medical 🏥 term for the inability to use a limb properly, mostly associated with walking or mobility, but usable in any case where a limb isn't functional.

With dogs, 🐕 those rambunctious furballs full of energy and love❤️‍🔥, lameness can show up suddenly. Usually, it's due to some kind of injury, but that's not always the case.

How can you diagnose it, how can it be treated, and what do you need to know? We’ll answer those questions and more in this post.

If you are looking for more dog care guidesI've sprinkled some great ones for you throughout the post. Alternatively, feel free to visit my blog. Spoiler alert, it is packed with resources 😁.

Let’s find out more.

How Lameness is Presented in Dogs

Lameness is usually just limping. Your fur baby favors one leg, keeping the foot raised when they aren't using it to move or even hopping to avoid putting weight on it.

In some cases, they can't even control it and end up dragging the leg on the ground, which sadly can cause more injury.

A Dog Unwilling to Stand Image by Toe Beans

Being lame or limping can come suddenly, or it can be a gradual issue. There are a lot of different causes for "doesn't want to put weight on the leg" that can range from minor or even funny all the way up to serious.

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Here is a list of symptoms, most of which will be pretty obvious, but some of these are surprising:

  • Refusing to walk or place weight on the affected leg.
  • Limping when moving.
  • Inability to run or walk normally without pain or limping.
  • Difficulty jumping into the car or onto a chair or climbing up or down stairs.
  • General signs of pain and discomfort.
  • Knuckling (pointing the toes downward so the knuckles touch the ground instead of paw pads.)
  • Swelling or other abnormalities around the joints of the leg.
  • In extended cases, loss of muscle mass and tone in the area.

Often, you'll notice your fur baby seems to have less energy and is favoring a leg, though in the case of an acute injury, it's a lot more obvious that something is wrong.

Limping also isn't always constant.

"Some limps come and go.

Osteoarthritis may worsen in cold and damp weather. Injuries to muscles, tendons, and ligaments will often improve with rest but may return once a dog's activity level increases again.

Immune-mediated polyarthritis, tick-borne infections, and panosteitis (a developmental disease seen in young dogs) are sometimes associated with lameness that seems to move from leg to leg." - PetMD.

So, depending on how the limping and lameness presents itself, it may be more or less of an issue than it first seems.

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How Much of an Emergency is Lameness in Dogs?

Unfortunately, the answer is, it depends.

The more common gradual lameness is not an emergency, but it is something you should get treated ASAP because leaving it untreated can further damage muscles, risk pulling other muscles, or cause other kinds of damage due to compensation for the lame limb.

This is usually the kind of situation where you can call your vet and schedule the next available appointment rather than bringing them to the emergency vet.

"Most often, limping is something that can wait until the next business day to be diagnosed by the veterinarian. If your dog's limping goes away entirely, you may not need to see the veterinarian right away, but do mention it at your next appointment and continue watching for other signs of an injury." – Emergency Vet Hospital.

Lameness in a Dog Image by Toe Beans

Acute and severe lameness is likely the result of an injury, which needs to be seen by a vet as soon as possible.

The most common reason you'd want to bring your dog to an emergency vet is suspicion of a broken bone or a set of other symptoms that indicate a serious injury.

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What Is Causing My Dog to Limp?

As we just discussed, determining the cause of the limping with help you determine how quickly a vet visit is needed.

They injured their foot.

If you get a cut on your foot, you don't want to walk on it, right? Well, neither does your fur baby. But unlike us, they aren't wearing shoes all the time, so they're susceptible to a bunch of different kinds of foot injuries.

A Dog With a Foot Injury Image by Toe Beans

Some foot injuries are simple and will heal on their own. Things like bug bites or stings, small cuts or scrapes, a scalded toe bean from hot pavement or a stray coal from a bonfire, skin irritation from a winter walk, or even just bruising from roughhousing can all cause your fur baby to limp.

Usually, the first thing to do if your pup is limping is inspect their foot.

Pro Tip: Don’t forget to check between their toes.

Usually, the first thing you do if your pooch is limping is inspect their foot. Something like a cut or sting can be soothed easily, burns can be addressed with soothing creams, and so on. If they have a thorn or rock stuck in their toes, it can also cause enough pain and irritation that they'll limp until it's removed.

Case in Point: Last week a neighbor was walking their dog when she suddenly started limping and wining. A quick foot inspection showed a wad of gum stuck to her paw. Prompt removal was done once they got home, and all was well again.

They've developed a joint problem.

We all have times when we stress a joint, and it aches for a while. Maybe you strain a knee, maybe you get tennis elbow; whatever the case is, it hurts to use that limb, so you start to favor it in order to let it rest. The same goes for dogs with joint problems.

Vet Treating a Dog With a Joint Problem Image by Toe Beans

Joint problems can be either chronic or acute. Acute joint problems are things like dysplasia, luxation (a dislocated knee, for example), or a pulled/strained/torn tendon or muscle in the area. These don't tend to get better without some attention, so the vet needs to see them; otherwise, it can cause other systemic issues.

Other joint issues can be chronic. Arthritis, particularly in older dogs, is common. Ligament diseases, intervertebral disk disease (IVDD), and osteochondritis dissecans (OCD) can all be long-term issues. Unfortunately, many of them don't really have cures, so you just have to manage them.

Tools like CBD may be able to help, as can pain medications, certain kinds of exercises, and occasionally other meds. Again, talk to your vet about management as their ailment progresses.

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They're feeling it in their bones.

Bone problems can be similar to joint problems in presentation but tend to be different disorders. Chronic issues can include hypertrophic osteodystrophy and panosteitis. Both of these disorders primary affect young dogs that are either large or giant breeds.

“Hypertrophic osteodystrophy is an uncommon orthopaedic disease that affects young, growing dogs... Affected animals often present with varying degrees of lameness, lethargy, pyrexia and/or distal metaphyseal swelling of affected limbs.” - Selman J, Towle Millard H. Hypertrophic osteodystrophy in dogs

A Dog With a Hurting Paw Image by Toe Beans

Dogs may also develop osteosarcoma, a kind of cancer of the bones. While more common in older dogs and large breeds, this disease can impact a pup of any age. Osteosarcoma is one of the most common canine cancers, and while treatments are available, sadly a study showed 80% will die from the cancer metastasizing in the lungs

Your fur baby was injured.

Injuries and trauma are common reasons why your fur baby will limp. These can range from a sprained muscle or ligament to a tear as less serious injuries, up to more severe problems like fractured or broken bones, dislocated joints, or even spinal cord injuries.

Treating an Injured Dog Paw Image by Toe Beans

Most healthy dogs aren't going to just randomly develop an injury. Usually, they occur because of some kind of hazard they encountered while playing.

More serious injuries can have internal problems you can't see. Internal bleeding or bruising and other internal fractures can cause more pain and damage and need treatment to heal properly. In some cases, they can be severe enough to be life-threatening.

If your pup has sudden lameness with swelling, bruising, or bleeding, it’s time to head to the vet.

They're faking it in sympathy or for attention.

There's one cause for limping that resolves itself quickly, and that's fakery. Yes, that's right; dogs are clever creatures, and they both understand your behaviors and have empathy for you.

A Dog Faking Being Injured Image by Toe Beans

There have been numerous cases on the internet of instances like:

  • A dog whose parent injured their leg and limps; the dog mimics the limp to show solidarity.
  • A dog who was injured in the past and was pampered during the recovery. Now, in a bid for more attention and pampering, they fake the same injury.

I've linked example like this one before. It's adorable and hilarious once you know nothing is wrong, but if your fur baby has never done such a thing before, it can be stressful (and expensive!) to bring them to the vet for what turns out to be nothing.

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How is Lameness in Dogs Treated?

If your dog has a limp, the first thing to do is assess whether or not there are other symptoms, as mentioned above, that make it an emergency. If so, you’ll obviously need to take them to the emergency vet.

A Vet Treating Lameness in a Dog Image by Toe Beans

If not, you should call your normal vet and get them in for a visit as soon as you can. Even if their limp clears up, your vet can do some tests and imaging to see if there's anything wrong.

Your vet will likely ask you about the history of the limp, so be prepared to answer questions like:

  • How long has your fur baby been limping?
  • When did it start, and were they doing anything in particular at that time?
  • Does the limp come and go, or is it static?
  • Does it seem worse in the mornings?
  • Are there any other changes?

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Your vet will also perform an examination feeling for lumps, swelling, or signs of injury. They may do bloodwork to check for signs of an infection.

They will also likely take X-rays and possibly other kinds of imaging to see if there are bone problems or soft tissue issues. In some cases, joint fluid analysis and other more advanced tests might be called for as well.

At this point, treatment depends on the cause of the injury. It may include:

  • Pain medications like carprofen, deracoxib, etodolac, or meloxicam, which are NSAID medications safe for pets (and better for them than things like aspirin or Tylenol.)
  • Joint supplements like glucosamine, omega-3s, or methylsulfonylmethane (MSM) which can promote joint health.
  • Behavioral recommendations, like keeping them away from heavy activity, having them wear a brace, putting on a cast in the case of broken bones, and so on.
  • Life changes like weight loss; dogs that are overweight are more likely to injure a limb when they have to maneuver that bulk, especially if they're running and playing. Extra weight can also irritate arthritis, so shedding a few pounds can make a big difference in the pressure on those joints.

Similarly, if there are specific problems like osteosarcoma involved, there are entire treatment plans for just those issues. Obviously, no one wants to hear the big C word about their fur baby, but sometimes it's unavoidable, and you just have to make the best of the situation.

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There are also some issues that could require surgery. Torn ligaments can sometimes require surgery to correct, for example.

And, of course, sometimes the limping seems to clear up before the vet visit, and the vet can't find anything wrong. In these cases, the only injury you need to triage is the one to your wallet, and just keep an eye on your furry friend and see if it happens again.

Fortunately, many of the most common causes of lameness in dogs are, if not easy to solve, at least solvable. It's rare that your fur baby will need serious surgery, ongoing medications, or a significant treatment plan.

Have you ever had to deal with a dog with a limp? If so, what was the issue, and how did it get handled? Tell me your story in the comments section down below! I'd love to hear it.

K Marie Alto
K Marie Alto

K. Marie is an animal lover, wife, kitty mom, dog auntie, writer, and co-founder of Toe Beans, a proud American family-owned online boutique pet supplies store focused on the improvement of the life of furry family members via pet parent education, better products, and advocacy. She has over 20 years of experience as a pet momma. She loves sharing her personal journey and experience as a pet parent via her blog and Facebook page where she currently has more than 50K followers (@furrytoebeans) and counting :-). Read more

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