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Lameness (limping) in Cats

By: Dr. Nicholas Trout

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Causes of Lameness

Sudden causes of lameness are generally more easy to define. If your cat was completely normal before taking exercise and suddenly comes up lame, obviously something happened that created a gait abnormality. Trauma of some type is most likely, although this can be extremely variable.

  • A thorn in a foot-pad can produce a sudden onset profound lameness.
  • An insect sting or bite on an affected leg may prove more subtle and difficult to find, but can be equally affective at producing lameness.
  • An overweight cat might jump down from a deck, landing awkwardly and damaging the ligaments supporting its carpus (wrist).

    In all of these examples, the pet has gone from normal to abnormal within a short period of time, but this does not necessarily mean that defining the lameness is always easy. In some cases it is possible to hone in on the correct area, for example the knee, and from there, try to define the problem more accurately.

    Sometimes cats will develop sudden onset lameness when the underlying problem has actually been around for some time. A cat with a low grade, partially torn cruciate ligament may suddenly progress to a full blown tear, but there can be chronic arthritis and soft tissue thickening of the joint suggestive of a more long standing problem. Some pets with bone tumors of the limbs can suddenly develop a severe lameness associated with a fracture of a bone at the site of the tumor. These fractures are often associated with more minor trauma, such as slipping on a kitchen floor, an incident that would not normally be thought of as causing a broken bone.

    Sudden onset lameness may be the initial presentation associated with a variety of spinal disorders. Extruded disk material in the neck region can causes a profound, single front leg lameness, a so-called root signature, as can disk problems in the lumbo-sacral region of the spine. Disk disease and fibrocartilaginous emboli (FCE) can produce rapid onset weakness and clumsiness that can be misinterpreted as lameness.

    Overt lameness of one or more legs may not be what an owner initially notices. It may be a reluctance to go up or down stairs, not eager to play, or just not acting as lively and bouncy as one might expect for a kitten.

    Sometimes lameness due to an orthopedic disorder can be misinterpreted as a neurological disease. Cats with cruciate injuries to both stifles can find it extremely difficult to walk and when they do can appear to be weak and clumsy on their back legs, similar to cats with disk disease.

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