Why Is My Dog Limping?

Reasons for Limping in Dogs and What to Do About It

Beagle of 12 weeks
@Hans Surfer / Getty Images

Like humans, dogs can become injured or develop illnesses that cause limping. Limping or lameness in dogs means the dog is walking abnormally on one or more limbs. In some cases, the dog can put weight on all limbs but a limp or abnormal gait is observed (it may be obvious or subtle). Sometimes, the dog holds up the affected limb and will not walk on it at all. The dog may even drag the affected limb around.

Limping and lameness may be intermittent or constant depending on the situation.

Limping in dogs is not uncommon, but it is also not normal. Lameness of any kind is a sign there is an illness or injury. If your dog is limping, it's important to take action. How fast to act depends on the severity of the lameness.

Is Limping an Emergency?

Limping is not always an emergency situation. In many cases, a limping dog should be seen by a veterinarian soon but not immediately. If you notice your dog limping, first assess the situation. Do you need to administer first aid of some kind? Is your dog able to stand or walk? Is there bleeding or swelling? How painful is your dog? Are there other signs of illness?

There are certain circumstances in which you should bring your dog to the nearest open veterinarian immediately. You may need to go to an emergency vet clinic if this happens after hours. Be careful getting your dog in the car.

If he is able to walk, you should still lift him in the car. If your dog is unable to walk, it's best to find help carrying him to the car (unless he is very small). When moving an injured dog, be very careful. You could accidentally make his injuries worse or cause unnecessary pain. You can also be bitten.

If possible, slide a sheet or blanket under him followed by a board or cardboard box to act as a stretcher. With the help of another person, slowly move your dog to the car and secure him in place if possible. If you are concerned about moving your dog or need help finding the best way to move him, call a veterinary office for advice.

The following are potential emergency situations: 

  • Your dog is suddenly unable or unwilling to get up at all
  • Your dog is extremely painful (trembling, vocalizing and/or showing signs of fear or aggression)
  • Your dog is bleeding profusely (apply pressure to the wound on the way to the vet)
  • There is excessive swelling in one or more limbs 
  • There is an obvious fracture (broken bone)
  • Your dog is dragging one or more limbs or otherwise appears paralyzed (this may be a spinal problem that can progress rapidly and may become permanent if not treated immediately)
  • Your dog has a fever (temperature over 103.5 F)
  • Your dog is showing other signs that he is very sick, like extreme lethargy, severe vomiting, etc.

If you notice anything else that makes you worried, you should contact a veterinary office for advice or simply get to the vet's office. It's always better to err on the side of caution when it comes to your dog's health.

What to Do If Your Dog is Limping

If you notice your dog is limping, but have determined it is not an emergency, there are a few things you can do to help your dog. If your dog will allow it, try to get a closer look at the affected limb. Is there an area your dog is licking? This could be the source of the problem. Gently handle the foot and leg, looking for cuts, bruises, swelling, heat, tender spots, instability and any other unusual signs. Look at the paw pad and between the toes to see if there is a foreign object stuck somewhere. Check for torn toenails. Gently manipulate the joints to check for tenderness or stiffness. You may feel or hear grinding in the joints (called crepitus) that might indicate arthritis.

If you find a minor cut, clean it with a gentle soap and tepid water (no hydrogen peroxide or alcohol).

You can apply an antiseptic ointment if desired, but make sire it is pet-safe as most dogs will lick it off. Major cuts should be handled by a vet as soon as possible. If you cannot tell how deep the cut is, you should get to the vet soon for closer examination.

For minor swelling, you can apply ice (wrapped in a cloth) for 10-15 minutes if your dog will tolerate it. If the swelling continues after 12-24 hours, go to the vet.

If your dog has a small object in his paw (like a tiny splinter or piece of glass) you can try to dislodge it with tweezers, but be very careful! Your dog might bite out of pain and you don't want to get hurt too. If you are able to pull out the item, clean it afterward as you would for a small cut. If you cannot remove the item (or are uncomfortable trying) go to the vet for help.

In most cases of limping, there will be no external signs. If this is the case for your dog and the limping is not severe, try to keep him quiet and comfortable. Encourage your dog to rest and do not take him for a walk or run. Do not allow your dog to exercise or jump up. Avoid stairs (or carry him up and down). For potty breaks, take your dog out on a short leash just to do his business. At all other times, crate rest is the best plan, especially if you won't be home for part of the day. Alternatively, you may confine your dog to a very small area. Provide a soft bed that is low to the ground. If the limping does not show improvement within 24-48 hours, bring your dog to the vet for an examination.

Very important: NEVER give your dog over-the-counter medications unless specifically recommended by your veterinarian. Ibuprofen, acetaminophen, and naproxen are toxic to dogs. Even aspirin can be harmful if used improperly. In addition, do not give any prescription medications unless they have been prescribed to your dog for this specific problem. Contact your veterinarian before giving any medications.

Causes of Limping in Dogs

Dog limping is caused by either an injury or an illness.

Limping often indicates that your dog is in some kind of discomfort. However, it may also mean that your dog is physically incapable of moving normally whether or not he is in pain. There are a variety of reasons for limping in dogs. Potential causes of limping in dogs include the following:

In some cases, the actual cause of limping cannot be determined. Your veterinarian will talk to you about options for diagnosis and treatment of your dog's limping.

Veterinary Care for Dog Limping

When you bring your dog to the veterinarian for limping, the staff will begin by getting some information from you. They will ask how long the limping has been going on and whether or not you observed the original injury. They will ask other questions about your dog's medical history. Provide as much information as you can about your dog's limping and medical history. If your dog's limping is intermittent or the is another abnormal aspect to the gait, you may wish to take a video to show the vet.

Next, the veterinarian will conduct a physical examination. The vet will check over your dog's entire body looking for potential causes of the lameness and concurrent health issues. Radiographs (x-rays) are commonly recommended to look for fractures and other abnormalities in the limbs. In some cases, sedation is necessary to get the best images. Your vet may also recommend lab work.

It is important to understand that lab work is useful for several reasons. First, lab test may reveal no underlying problems that cause or contribute to the lameness. Or, there may be underlying problems that are unrelated to the limping but will make sedation or medications dangerous. Some owners think lab work is unnecessary and expensive. However, it is a very important tool that is ultimately worth the cost. Although it is your prerogative to decline lab work, it may limit your vet's ability to diagnosed and treat your dog (or make treatment riskier). 

Treatment for dog limping depends on the cause. Some limping will resolve on its own. In many cases, the first step of treatment includes rest and medication (especially if your vet suspects a sprain/strain, arthritis, or minor issue). Certain injuries and diseases require more aggressive treatment, such as surgery (some fractures, major cruciate injuries, etc.). 

Your vet may recommend advanced diagnosis and/or a second opinion from a veterinary specialist in the case of a major injury, disorder, or if your dog has undiagnosed limping that does not go away.