Lameness (Limping) in Dogs

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Overview of Canine Limping (Lameness) 

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 of Lameness in Dogs

  • 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.
  • Treatment of Lameness in Dogs

  • Treatment may be as simple, such as rest for a few days for a minor tendon or muscle sprain, or it may be as involved as major orthopedic or neurologic surgery for severe hip dysplasia or an acute intervertebral disk extrusion.
  • In some cases the exact cause of lameness may not be obvious. A period of exercise restriction and rest may be suggested, perhaps with an anti-inflammatory medication in order to see if the problem responds to such a conservative approach. Failure to respond may suggest a more serious problem that necessitates more detailed diagnostic tests.
  • Surgical treatment will almost always necessitate postoperative hospitalization during which time your pet will receive analgesics, pain-killers, to ensure a smooth and comfortable recovery.
  • Home Care

    Following a surgical procedure you will need to enforce a period of rest and restriction. This may not prove too difficult at first; however, in the case of many healing fractures, it will need to last at least six weeks, and your pet may not want to be restricted.

    Some lameness problems may be treated with a cast, splint or soft-padded bandage. This will need to be kept clean and dry and, where appropriate, the toes at the bottom of the bandage should be checked daily for swelling, sweating or pain.

    Follow your veterinarian’s instructions carefully with regard to medications such as antibiotics or anti-inflammatory drugs, and there may be a need for follow-up x-rays or a follow-up visit with your vet. If the lameness is resolving, gradually re-introduce exercise over a period of several weeks.

    Preventive Care

    Lameness problems arise during normal everyday activity. Severe injuries such as falling from a height or being hit by a car can be avoided by good containment of your pet and appropriate use of a leash.

    Certain lameness problems may be associated with certain breeds e.g. hip dysplasia, patella luxation, elbow dysplasia. Choosing your dog carefully, checking the parents and having regular veterinary check-ups can go a long way to reducing many risks for lameness.

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