Dogs limp for a variety of reasons. It may be sudden onset or gradual over time. It may be an obvious non weight bearing lameness or it may be subtle. Limping doesn’t always mean there is something wrong with your dog, but it’s important not to ignore the first signs of changes in your dog’s gait, or short bouts of limping that keep returning.
Causes of Limping in Dogs
The cause of your dog’s limp may be clear, like a broken bone or a cut on the paw pad. Other times, the cause of the limp may be a little less obvious.
Common Causes of Limping in Dogs Include:
- Broken bones and other trauma
- Back and neck issues (IVDD or degenerative spondylosis / myelopathy)
- Hip dysplasia
- Iliopsoas strain
- Torn ACL in knee
- Luxating patella
- Elbow dysplasia
- Shoulder injuries
- Bindis / prickles
- Muscle tightness and imbalance
It’s important to note that the degree of limping is not always a good indicator of the severity of your dog’s problem. Take bindis (prickles) as an example. In Australia, bindis are a common cause of non-weight bearing lameness in dogs. Remove the bindi and the issue goes away. ACL injuries on the other hand can produce little to no limping, but they often lead to surgery.
Limping Due to Muscle Tightness and Imbalance
Subtle changes in a dog’s posture, or movement, doesn’t always mean there is pathological tissue change (degeneration or injury). Pain may be generated because tissues are being stretched or compressed, or there may be aching because there is stagnant fluid movement.
Just look at us! Our neck and shoulders can ache if we’ve spent too long at the computer. Our posture through our neck and shoulders may become hunched because we’ve spent too long slouching. Get up and move around, do some shoulder circles, and we’re good for a while. There’s not actually an injury, just mechanical imbalances. Maybe the chest muscles are too tight, the back muscles too weak? It may even be coming from the hips? Or maybe it’s simply because you spent too long looking at your computer.
If we’re proactive we’ll seek help, and at this point those issues are often pretty easy to fix (unless they’re hiding a more serious underlying issue). If however we let it linger, say for months, just putting up with it…fixing the issue becomes harder. It’s not impossible, but it will take longer and more participation from you.
The same is true for our dogs, the longer you leave things the harder it may be to resolve the issue. What makes it more problematic for dogs however, is that they’re amazing at covering up more serious injuries and degeneration.
Limping Due to Pathological Tissue Change (Injury / Degeneration)
Significant injuries and degeneration can cause varying degrees of limping, ranging from full non-weight bearing lameness to a subtle, occasional limp. Remember, the degree of limping is not an accurate indicator of the degree of pathological tissue change, as dogs are experts at covering it up.
Take for example a dog with a torn ACL in their knee. If the injury occurs more acutely, the dog may start out with a significant limp. This limp may last for a few days to a week before it settles to little or no limp. From here the limp may only be observable to the more astute. Subtle changes in the dog’s sitting posture, and their desire / ability to jump into the car / on the bed may be the only signs seen.
If however, your dog’s ACL tears as part of a degenerative process, there may be no obvious insighting event. They may just start sitting sloppy with their leg out to the side. They may have a limp to a keen observer, but it may not be very obvious.
Another example is a dog with significant hip dysplasia. The dog may look normal until they’re running around. If you don’t know what normal running looks like (versus bunny hopping) you may think nothing is wrong with the dog. They’re simply running around having fun.
Arthritis on the other hand may sneak up really slowly. It often occurs with age but, in cases of dysplasia and injuries, it can be seen in dogs less than one year old. Your dog may just look a bit off, or they may be stiff getting up off their bed.
A keen eye may be able to distinguish more subtle limps, as well as which leg is the cause of the limp, but it’s often hard to say it’s a particular joint or area without a full physical examination. Sometimes, even with a full physical examination it’s hard to distinguish a cause for the limp. Our dogs can be that good at hiding it.
Is My Dog in Pain if They’re Limping?
While your dog can’t tell us if they’re in pain, changes in movement and posture are usually clues that something is not right. Your dog may have the start of a significant problem or an injury / degenerative change. Alternatively, your dog may just be comfier moving asymmetrically, or they may have had an issue and gotten used to a certain movement pattern.
Offloading one back or front limb more than the other usually suggests there is some kind of problem with the limb that they’re not using normally.
Let’s consider ourselves again as an example. If you’re limping through one of your legs, most of the time you’re doing this because something hurts. You may have a stone in your shoe, you may feel a pulling behind your knee because your hamstring is tight, or you may have a torn ACL in your knee.
Occasionally however, you may be limping and nothing hurts. You may have sat too long, or you may have hip arthritis and your muscles have tightened to a point that they’ve altered how you’re walking. You may not even notice that you’re walking funny, but someone who treats these kind of issues may see it easily.
My Dog’s Limp Goes Away During a Walk
Limping that disappears during a walk is quite common. When your dog starts moving their joints are being lubricated and their muscles warm up. If there is any inflammation, the movement may also help to flush that out.
Later in the walk ,the limp may return as your dog starts to get fatigued. This occurs because the muscles are tired, and they can no longer work optimally. This is a good time to terminate the walk.
What Should I do if My Dog is Limping?
First things first, you need to see your Vet. Your Vet can assess your dog to ensure there are no obvious injuries. They’ll talk to you about what you’ve observed, look at how your dog is moving, perform a physical examination, and decide if scans or any further intervention is required.
In more subtle cases, you may need to seek out a rehab vet, or a physical therapist, osteopath or chiropractor with additional training in the treatment of animals. These practitioners spend their careers observing, examining, and treating both the obvious, as well as the subtle changes in the musculoskeletal system. Their astute eye is often what is needed to pick up these subtle, shifting lamenesses. This is often the key to catching some injuries/imbalances early enough to start treating straight away, and prevent further issues.