Limping in Cats

Causes, Treatment, and Prevention

White and orange cat outside holding up a front leg.

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Limping is almost always a sign of pain, but the cause may not be obvious. There are several reasons why a cat may limp, many of which are injuries that require veterinary care. Sometimes, however, a thorn or splinter may simply need to be removed from your cat's paw.

What Is Limping?

Limping is the act of walking with a raised or stiff limb. It is generally a reaction to an injury or ailment that causes a cat pain and makes it lift its paw or leg to remove painful pressure from the limb. The result is an uncoordinated, jolting gait.

Symptoms of Limping in Cats

Limping is easy to recognize, even if its cause is not. In a cat, limping may be characterized by the following signs:

Symptoms

  • Unsteady or unbalanced gait
  • Raised paw
  • Swelling of the affected limb
  • Obvious signs of injury

Limping is a symptom of a physical problem that must be identified. A cat may keep its paw raised, walking on three legs to avoid pressure and pain in the affected limb. In some cases, a cat will put enough pressure on the limb that it causes more pain and makes the cat's gait appear clumsy.

If the limb has been injured, it may swell or show signs of trauma such as broken skin, bleeding, or crookedness (broken bone).

Causes of Limping

A broken bone is commonly the first conclusion people make when assessing a limp, but there are several other reasons a cat may limp.

  • Fracture: Broken bones are very painful, so cats won't bear weight on a broken leg. Trauma, malnutrition, or even cancer can cause bones to break.
  • Dislocated Joint: Shoulder and hip joints can be dislocated if a cat experiences severe physical trauma such as being hit by a car or falling from a high surface.
  • Arthritis: This joint condition can be painful and cause a cat to limp.
  • Broken or Missing Claw: Cat nails curl and can grow into the paw pad on rare occasions.
  • Foreign Object: Thorns, wood splinters, staples, and other sharp objects can become lodged in your cat's foot or toes and cause pain.
  • Wound: Bites, scratches, cuts, burns, and abrasions of the leg or paw can result in a painful wound that triggers limping.
  • Torn Ligament: The ligament in a cat's knee can tear and cause instability in the joint.
  • Spinal Injury: Nerve damage from a spinal injury can cause loss of mobility in a limb.
  • Blood Clot: A saddle thrombus is a specific type of blood clot that can cause paralysis of the back legs. It is very sudden, painful, and life-threatening.
Grey tabby cat having a broken leg bandaged.
Broken bones may require a splint, cast, or even surgery.

Yelena Shander / Getty Images

Diagnosing Limping in Cats

Since there are a variety of reasons why a cat may limp, your veterinarian will need to start with a full physical examination. Depending on which leg your cat is favoring, signs of abnormality will be evaluated in the feet, legs, hips, and shoulders.

If no obvious signs of a wound, burn, foreign object, or overgrown nail are seen, an x-ray will be recommended. X-rays can detect broken bones and dislocated joints but not ligament tears, blood clots, or nerve damage.

More extensive diagnostic imaging, such as an MRI or CT scan, may be necessary to identify the cause of a limp.

Treatment

Treatments for limping depend on the cause and may include:

  • Medications for pain, inflammation, and infection may be prescribed.
  • Wounds, burns, and overgrown nails may be cleaned and sutured as necessary.
  • Surgery, splints, bandages, or casts may be warranted for broken bones or dislocated joints.

Sedation or anesthesia will likely be necessary for surgery as well as other procedures (removing foreign objects, suturing wounds).

Occasionally, physical therapy is also necessary to help a cat regain mobility. In rare cases of traumatic injury, a cat's leg may need to be surgically amputated.

Prognosis for a Limping Cat

Most causes of limping can be addressed and repaired so that a cat can resume a relatively normal lifestyle. Of course, the prognosis will vary with each unique case.

How to Prevent Limping

Since most cases of limping in cats are due to injuries, and outdoor cats are more likely to be injured than indoor cats, keeping your cat inside your home is a great way to prevent it from suffering a limp.

In cases of arthritis or joint problems, supplements like glucosamine, chondroitin sulfate, and omega-3 fatty acids may help keep your cat more mobile and comfortable as it ages. Also, helping your cat maintain a healthy weight can prevent joint problems.

Keeping your cat's claws trimmed can prevent overgrown nails from contributing to a limp.

If you suspect your pet is sick, call your vet immediately. For health-related questions, always consult your veterinarian, as they have examined your pet, know the pet's health history, and can make the best recommendations for your pet.