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Lameness (Limping) in Dogs

By: Dr. Nicholas Trout

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Canine lameness, or limping, can be caused by any underlying reason for a dog to have pain. Any decrease in an animal's ability to bear weight on a limb or a decrease in the normal mobility and function of a limb can be considered lameness. Lameness can be extremely subtle or profound, affecting one limb or several limbs. It can be intermittent or constant, worse in the morning, worse at night, worse after rest, worse after or during exercise.

There is no breed, age or sex predeliction for lameness. Lameness may be associated with a traumatic event, such as being hit by a car, or it may develop gradually, as in a bone tumor in an affected leg. The underlying cause of a lameness may be life threatening or it may be detrimental to a good quality of life such as debilitating and painful hip dysplasia and its associated arthritis.

What to Watch For

  • Obvious inability to walk or run normally
  • Crying behavior suggesting that your dog is in pain
  • Reluctance to perform normal activity, like going up or down stairs
  • Refusing to place any weight on a leg

    Diagnosis

  • History and physical. Your veterinarian will take a detailed history with regard to the onset, duration and variations in the lameness. S/he will also carefully watch your dog stand, sit, walk and trot. Your veterinarian will also give your dog a general physical examination that includes a careful orthopedic examination. During the physical examination, they will evaluate where your dog is most painful and for any palpalpable abnormalities of the bones or joints.

  • Neurologic exam. Not all lameness is due to orthopedic disorders. A neurological examination of the limb(s) may be suggested if your veterinarian believes the problem may lie at the level of the brain, spinal cord, nerves or muscles that they supply.

  • Radiographs. Dependent on the physical examination findings, radiographs may be taken of painful or suspicious areas of a limb(s). Opposite limbs may also be X-rayed for comparison or where bilateral (both sides) disease is suspected.

  • Other diagnostic tests may be performed such as joint taps (removal of joint fluid and evaluation of this material by a pathologist), ultrasound, CT, MRI, myelography (a dye study of the spinal canal), biopsy, and contrast radiography such as arthrography where dye is injected into a joint.

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