Why is My Dog Limping? Causes for Lameness in Dogs

When dog owners notice a change in their dog’s walking behavior, such as a limp or refusing to put weight on one of their paws or legs, it’s a clear sign that your dog is dealing with a physical injury or challenge. Dogs have a high tolerance for pain and they don’t express this pain in the same way as a person, but if you’re asking yourself, “Why is my dog limping?” it probably means you have some investigative work to do.

Not all causes of lameness in dogs are serious or require medical attention. As a dog owner, though, it’s important to stay vigilant of your dog’s physical condition and to understand when at-home first aid and care isn’t sufficient. Here’s an overview of what you need to know when your dog is limping.

 

Senior dog next to a man in jean shorts.

 

Potential Causes of Lameness in Dogs

The causes of limping can be broken down into two broad categories: limping that develops suddenly, and limping that develops and worsens gradually over time.

Sudden Limping

Sudden causes of limping are typically the result of some injury or trauma, such as an injured paw, injury to a leg joint, or a possible bone break. A sudden case of lameness typically requires first aid treatment and monitoring by the dog owner to determine if the circumstances require a visit to the vet.

Gradual-Onset Limping

Gradual-onset limping can be tougher to identify. This condition can result from the natural degeneration of your pet’s muscles, bones and/or joints. In some breeds, the onset of this limping may be very likely based on the typical health issues that the breed may face. In general, older dogs are at a greater risk of limping and lameness that develops gradually due to osteoarthritis, back pain or other chronic issues.

In less common cases, the gradual onset of limping could be the result of an unseen growth, such as a tumor, that is affecting your dog’s internal structures and/or creating pain that limits the mobility of its muscles and joints.

When to Worry: Signs of Symptoms to Watch Out For

If your dog’s behaviors have changed—such as a decline in appetite or whimpering in pain—there could be acute pain resulting from an injury that isn’t visible to the pet owner. If these symptoms develop, contact your vet’s office.

Some cases of limping can resolve on their own through rest and basic at-home treatment after doing an inspection of your dog’s paw. Limping may be the result of a strained or sore muscle that will likely heal on its own. Similarly, injured paws may be sensitive for a few days, restricting your pet’s desire to run, jump or play, especially on hard surfaces.

In general, limping or lameness that doesn’t resolve on its own within a few days may need to be inspected by your dog’s veterinarian. Additionally, if your dog’s mobility has been significantly impacted, such as making it difficult or impossible to walk, take stairs or jump up and down from furniture, your dog may be experiencing significant pain and mobility issues that require a more immediate response.

How to Tell if a Dog’s Leg is Broken

A broken leg is a serious health issue that requires an immediate visit to your local veterinary hospital. A broken leg is often easy to identify because your dog will refrain from putting any weight on the broken bone. If your dog has broken its back leg, for example, you can expect to see your dog holding its back leg up and hobbling around your home, or possibly refusing to walk entirely. Sometimes (but not always) the dog will vocalize by whimpering.

If you suspect a broken leg, don’t inspect the leg on your own. Instead, carefully take your dog straight to a veterinarian to have the leg examined in a way that avoids the risk of additional, accidental injury.

Tips for Providing First Aid and Home Care

If your dog’s limping and other symptoms don’t rise to the level of requiring a visit to the vet, there are several steps you can take to support their healing at home:

  • Give your dog time to rest. Don’t take dogs for walks, or encourage playing, while they’re still limping. Encourage more rest time and less activity.
  • Eliminate the need for dogs to run up and down stairs, or to jump onto furniture. If your floors are slippery, you may want to provide your dog with sturdy rugs that improve their grip on the floor.
  • Inspect the paw or leg for foreign bodies. Thorns, rocks and other objects may be the cause of limping and lameness.
  • Apply ice packs to injured areas twice daily, for 15 minutes each. If you know where your dog is sore and inflamed, ice compresses can help reduce inflammation and support healing.
  • Treat abscesses by giving your dog an Epsom salt bath. This may alleviate the abscess and prevent a rupture.

When to Visit Your Local Vet

Other than cases where your dog can’t walk, or your dog is exhibiting a severe limp and refusing to put weight on its leg, there are some other instances where a vet visit is necessary. These include:

  • Limpness in any of your dog’s extremities. A limp paw or lower leg, for example, likely indicates a dislocated joint that a vet will need to correct.
  • Swelling in any leg. Swelling may be indicative of a break or severe muscle strain.
  • Skin that is hot to the touch, even if your dog isn’t exhibiting a severe limp. This may be the sign of a serious infection.
  • Yelping or moaning from your dog. If your dog is in clear distress, seek emergency care.

Lameness in dogs may be alarming to their owners, but in many cases limping is the result of a mild injury that will heal over time. Stay patient and attentive with your dog, while keeping an eye out for signs of pain or complications that require a visit to the vet’s office.