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Why is My Dog Limping?

Written By
Reviewed by
Dr. Sarah Wooten, DVM
6 min read

Updated - Sep 4th, 2021

Reviewed by Dr. Sarah Wooten, DVM.

Being a loving dog owner means wearing a piece of your heart on your sleeve. That’s why it’s all the more painful when you see your pup hurting and they can’t tell you why. But that’s just part of the doggy cycle – with all the jumping, running, fetching, and exploring that your dog will do, there’s bound to be a little bit of wear-and-tear here and there. Fur-tunately, we’re here to tell you how to deal with it.

Types of Limps

Since you and your pup are probably attached at the hip, it should be easy to tell whether your dog’s lameness is gradual limping or sudden limping. Identifying the type of limp your dog has can help you pinpoint what’s wrong. A gradual limp comes on slowly (maybe over a few days or weeks) and is usually caused by a chronic or degenerative condition like a bone or joint disease. A sudden limp comes on in a matter of seconds, directly following an injury or trauma, or as a result of an infection, like bone infections (osteomyelitis) or tick-borne disease like Lyme disease.

You can also identify the limp more accurately by watching your pup walk. Is your dog dragging their back leg, or is one of the front legs causing the problem? Are they scraping their nails when they walk? Does their head bob up and down excessively when they walk, if so, what leg are they stepping on when it bobs up? Does your dog lift their hurt leg while walking and rest on it when still? Are they taking longer or shorter steps?

How to Know When it’s an Emergency

Regardless of the above, unless it resolves on its own, puppy limping usually requires a visit to the vet. At the same time, how do you know when your dog has a little bump or bruise from a too-rowdy game of fetch or when it’s something much more urgent?

Broken bones and dislocated joints require immediate care, and post-trauma nerve damage can be an indicator of neurological damage or a spinal injury. If the following signs are present, you should bring your dog to the vet or the vet emergency room as soon as you can:

  • Dangling/dislocated limb
  • Limping and won’t put a foot down for any reason
  • Abnormal swelling of any part of a leg
  • Hot limb Legs that seem painful when touched, or hot to the touch (indicates inflammation) 
  • Obvious break or unnatural angle of the leg
  • Down dog – can’t get up from sitting/laying down, dragging or both hind limbs seems paralyzed or weak in hind-end (can indicate spinal disc disease) 

Paw Injuries

We’ve all stubbed our toes or stepped on a nail, so we all know how painful a foot injury can be. A paw is no different!

The paw pads underneath your dog’s feet provide cushioning, prevent slipping, protect the bones and joints from the shock of walking and running, regulate temperature in extreme climates, and navigate rough terrain. In other words, they’re always there for your furry friend, which is why an injury to the paw pad requires immediate attention.

Objects like glass, sticks, thorns, and more can cut or get stuck in your dog’s paw, making it uncomfortable to walk and potentially leading to infection. Other paw-affecting injuries include broken toenails, burns, bruises, and frostbite. If your pup is perpetually licking their foot (more than normal, that is), it could be a sign of injury. Dogs will also limp when they have an injured or painful paw pad. 

Traumatic Injuries

Traumatic injuries are a common cause of lameness in dogs. Just like we can break bones or tear ligaments during physical activities, your pup can get hurt, too. And while puppy casts are totally adorable (what isn’t adorable on your pooch?), the whimpering and limping is almost impossible to bear. 

Fractures, broken bones, dislocations, joint injuries, ACL tears in the knee joint, other torn ligaments, spinal injuries, sprains, and more can cause your doggo to limp. In some cases, they might be unable to put any weight on the affected leg. If you notice a limp for more than 15 minutes, schedule an X-ray and an appointment with the vet as soon as possible to prevent the injury from worsening and stop the pain. 

Bone Diseases

If you have a younger, bigger dog, they might be at risk for bone diseases that can cause lameness. Large breeds tend to grow up quickly – and their bones might take a while to get acclimated to all that new weight. Panosteitis (inflammation of the long bones) and Hypertrophic Osteodystrophy (inflammation in the growth plates of the long bones) are most common and can cause a gradual limp to appear that might shift from leg to leg. 

Bone cancers, such as osteosarcoma, can also manifest in a limp and severely weaken bone to the point that it easily breaks, which is why it’s best to jump on that vet appointment as soon as you notice something’s off. 

Joint Diseases 

Joint diseases are another common cause of limping in dogs, with degenerative joint disease –- or osteoarthritis –- being number one. Osteoarthritis causes inflammation in the joints that worsens over time and is particularly common in senior dogs, overweight dogs, and large breeds. In addition to a limp, you might also notice your pup sleeping more, walking more slowly, dragging behind on walks, having bathroom accidents in the house, or avoiding stairs and jumping if they’re suffering from osteoarthritis.

Other common joint diseases include hip dysplasia, elbow dysplasia, patellar luxation, intervertebral disk disease, ligament disease, and osteochondritis –- all of which can cause limping. Lyme disease can also affect the joints, which is why it’s always essential for you to check your dog for ticks after a long hike or a day in the woods.

Treatment

So, now that you have a good idea of why your dog is limping, you’re probably wondering what you can do to treat it.

First things first: don’t examine your doggo yourself or give them your favorite human medication. As much as you want to put a Band-Aid on their boo-boo, it might do more harm than good.

You’ll find that there’s no one “magic pill” to cure your pup’s limp. Paw injuries, trauma injuries, bone diseases, and joint diseases will all be treated differently, and your vet will help guide you in the right direction. Treatment plans could include over-the-counter or prescribed pain medication, physical therapy, or surgery. For joint diseases, your vet will likely prescribe joint supplements like glucosamine hydrochloride and chondroitin sulfate. And for some injuries, the only cure is a whole lot of attention, treats, and TLC. 

But, of course, trips to the vet can be costly – a single visit can cost up to $400 alone, not to mention the added cost of X-rays, medications, and surgeries your best friend might need. 

Luckily, Pumpkin is here to help. We know your furry pal deserves a new leash on life, and we want you to be able to give it to them. Find out how Pumpkin’s dog insurance plans can help keep your dog happy, healthy, and limp-free.

Pumpkin Pet Insurance policies do not cover pre-existing conditions. Waiting periods, annual deductible, co-insurance, benefit limits and exclusions may apply. For full terms, visit pumpkin.care/insurancepolicy. Products, discounts, and rates may vary and are subject to change. Pumpkin Insurance Services Inc. (“Pumpkin”) (NPN #19084749) is a licensed insurance agency, not an insurer. Insurance is underwritten by United States Fire Insurance Company (NAIC #21113. Morristown, NJ), a Crum & Forster Company and produced by Pumpkin. Pumpkin receives compensation based on the premiums for the insurance policies it sells.

Pumpkin Preventive Essentials is not an insurance policy. It is offered as an optional add-on non-insurance benefit. Pumpkin is responsible for the product and administration. Pumpkin Preventive Essentials is not available in all states. For full terms, visit pumpkin.care/customeragreement.

Rachel is a copywriter and the favorite aunt of an adorable Cockapoo named Bentley.
Reviewed by Dr. Sarah Wooten, DVM