There are many possible reasons for dogs limping, from common causes like bruises, to sprained muscles, tendons and ligaments, to broken nails and bones, cuts and infections. There are also more complex causes like slipped discs, and longer-term conditions like osteoarthritis and even cancer. The quick answer to helping a limping dog is, of course, to take the dog to the vet, but there are simple steps that owners can do in many mild cases that may pre-empt the need for this.
What does it mean when a dog is lame?
Lameness can be caused by issues such as instability (e.g. with torn ligaments), or stiffness (e.g. with some cases of long term arthritis), but most cases of sudden onset lameness are caused by pain. For this reason, lamenesses need to be taken seriously: animals can’t verbalise their discomfort, and it isn’t fair to allow them to suffer in silence.
How bad is my dog’s lameness?
Vets classify lameness on a scale graded from one to five, depending on the severity. It’s useful for owners to be able to place an approximate grade on the degree of lameness. This allows them to be objective when reviewing whether a dog is getting better or worse, and it also makes it easier to explain more clearly to others the degree of lameness suffered by a dog.
Grade 1. The lameness is not recognizable at the walk, but is seen as a subtle change of gait when the animal is trotting
Grade 2. The lameness is difficult to see in a walking animal, but is very obvious when trotting.
Grade 3. The lameness is obvious when walking and trotting.
Grade 4. The dog is so lame that even when standing still, the foot is not placed on the ground with full weight bearing.
Grade 5. This is known as a “non-weight bearing lameness” i.e. the dog holds the leg up all the time, refusing to put any weight on it at all.
Which leg is my dog limping on?
Most people have an instinctive ability to judge whether a dog is limping (their gait just looks “wrong”), but it can be more difficult than you’d think to work out which leg is affected. In a grade 4 or 5 lameness, it’s obvious (the animal is holding the leg up for some, or all, the time).In lower grade lamenesses, it’s more subtle: it can help to take a short video of the limping dog, then watch it in slow motion so that you can carefully observe the movements of the animal’s body.
With a forelimb lameness, the dog's head drops down when the healthy leg is placed on the ground, and the head is lifted up when the affected leg is used. This can be confusing: the “nodding” as the head goes down on the good leg is more obvious than the “head lifting” on the bad leg, and owners often presume that the wrong leg is the affected limb. Also, when an animal is moving quickly, it can be difficult to analyse these head movements, which is why a slow motion video can help.
A hind limb lameness can be trickier to spot: the resulting changes in body movements are subtle. Sometimes, with a long term issue, there is visible muscle wasting of the muscles of the hindquarters: if you view the dog from behind, you can see that the “good” side has bulkier, more rounded musculature compared to the lame side.
How can I help my limping dog
Once the affected limb has been identified, the next stage is to identify the precise location of the problem. Unlike humans, a dog can’t verbally explain the location of pain, so the only way to find out is to poke, prod and twist the animal’s leg until you find out which bit hurts. This may sound harsh, but it can be done gently, so that as soon as you find the painful area, you stop. Some dogs yelp and pull away when you do anything to them, so you need to factor this in when deciding how firmly to twist his joints. You can judge this by examining his good leg first - this will give you a sense of his natural tendency to wriggle.
Get someone else to hold the dog steady: you can't do this on your own. Carry out a detailed examination of the affected limb.
First, visually inspect the foot, checking for redness or swelling of the skin on the underside of the foot, and looking for cuts or scratches in the pads.
Start at the tip of each toe, holding the toe, and twisting it firmly. Dogs don't mind at all when healthy joints are twisted so if he yelps or pulls away, that's the sore one. You can be very firm indeed if your dog is not reacting: it would be exceptionally difficult to damage a dog by twisting his joints.
If the toes are pain-free, move to the wrist (carpus) or ankle (tarsus): flex the joint firmly, and extend it firmly too, stretching it to the limit of its natural movements. A normal dog shows no reaction: if it’s painful, the dog will pull away or yelp.
If this joint is normal, move up to the elbow or knee (stifle), flexing and extending the joint.
Finally, do the same with the shoulder or hip: this can be physically difficult to do in a large dog.
What treatment should I give my limping dog?
A dog suffering from a grade 4 or 5 lameness needs to be taken to the vet as soon as possible: this is a sign of a serious physical issue that needs professional intervention.
For dogs suffering from grade 1 to 3 lameness, a more relaxed approach can be taken.
Many mild lamenesses are due to minor injuries that settle down after a short period of rest. A good rule of thumb is to rest an affected dog completely for a week or so, then gradually to introduce normal exercise. If the lameness does not respond to this, you need to take them to the vet.
Owners should never give their pets over the counter or human pain relief medication: one of the most common causes of serious poisoning of dogs is owner administration of human pain killers. Minor injuries will respond to rest without pain relief, and if your dog is bad enough to need pain relief, then you should take them to the vet.
What about splints or strapping?
It’s far more difficult than you’d think to apply a secure dressing to a dog’s leg: these easily fall off, or are pulled off by an inquisitive dog. Additionally, if bandaging is applied incorrectly, it can put pressure on the injured part of the animal, making things worse. It’s better to stick to the basic principle of “rest and time”, leaving bandaging to the veterinary team if it’s needed.
Do dogs fake injuries?
Dogs are smart and sensitive creatures, and they love attention from their owners. Most owners lavish extra attention on their pets when they’re unwell, and some dogs are clever enough to remember this. If they have been limping because of an injury, and they’ve been molly-coddled, a mental connection is made. After they’ve recovered, some dogs may deliberately fake a limp, for the sole purpose of garnering extra attention from their owners. It can be difficult to spot this: try watching your dog from a hidden location so that they don’t know you’re looking, or take a video using a remotely controlled camera. If the lameness magically disappears in your absence, then you know your dog is faking it.