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When it comes to pets, few sights are as heartbreaking as seeing a pet suffering from leg pain. Whatever form it takes — be it hobbling, staggering or limping — prompt veterinary attention is typically recommended. Even if you don’t think there is an emergency, a simple limp can indicate a serious condition affecting the musculoskeletal system, nervous system or even the skin.
Limping (often referred to as lameness) is one of the top ten reasons pets visit veterinarians each year. Before a vet can decipher exactly why a pet is experiencing leg pain, she needs to consider the animal’s age, as well as the species of the pet. Here are common causes for limping in dogs and cats, both young and old:
Trauma. High-energy puppies and juvenile dogs are notorious for getting into all sorts of trouble, resulting in everything from broken bones and lacerations to pad burns and claw fractures.
Congenital or inherited diseases. Hip dysplasia, patellar luxation, Legg-Calve-Perthes disease and elbow dysplasia, among other orthopedic ailments and inherited neuromuscular diseases, can cause lameness.
Panosteitis. This disease targets young, growing dogs and can lead to severe, multilimb lameness.
Infectious diseases. Ticks are known for spreading diseases that can cause lameness, such as Lyme disease. This can occur in dogs of any age, not just young dogs.
Osteoarthritis. This often-inevitable disease is the result of a lifetime of wear and tear on joints. Dogs born with inherited bone or joint problems (like hip dysplasia), as well as larger dogs, are more likely to exhibit severe symptoms and show signs of osteoarthritis at a younger age.
Spinal diseases. Intervertebral disc disease is prevalent among dwarfed dogs, also known as chondrodystrophic breeds (like Dachshunds and Basset Hounds). The condition leads to lameness as the discs between a dog’s vertebrae degenerate, slip out of place and press on the spinal cord.
Cruciate ligament disease. This common disease of the knee typically affects middle-aged dogs, causing pain, inflammation, instability and mild to severe lameness of one or both knees.
Neuromuscular diseases. Less common neuromuscular diseases, such as myasthenia gravis, can result in limb weakness and even paralysis.
Cancers. Tumors of the bones, muscles, nerves and joints can all cause limping. In fact, any kind of tumor that affects the limbs, including feet and toes, can manifest as lameness.
Trauma. Injuries caused by trauma are most common in kittens who live outdoors, but indoor kittens are also subject to such injuries, thanks to falls or run-ins with human feet, doors or furniture.
Cat bite abscess. This can happen in cats of any age (even kittens) and is perhaps the No. 1 cause of lameness in outdoor cats. If left untreated, felines with leg bites often develop festering wounds, which can lead to lameness.
Trauma. Dog attacks and vehicular accidents are the most common causes of feline trauma.
Osteoarthritis. In older and larger cats, arthritis is more common than many pet owners realize. Osteoarthritis in cats can affect any of the body’s joints, including the spine, hips, knees and elbows.
Here’s what you can expect your vet to do if your pet shows signs of lameness:
1. Take a history. Most veterinarians will begin by asking a few basic questions to help them understand the history of the problem: When did you first notice the limp or abnormal gait? Has it changed? How has your pet been acting otherwise? What medications or dietary supplements have you used? (If your pet has taken any kind of medicine or supplement, take it with you when you visit the vet.)
2. Do a physical evaluation. Examining the entire body, not just the problem leg, is a crucial part of the process.
3. Do a dermatologic evaluation. A veterinarian should look for the presence of lesions on the skin, such as pad burns, which often go undiagnosed if an exam isn’t thorough.
4. Do a musculoskeletal evaluation. When searching for a source of leg pain or weakness, a veterinarian will palpate (feel) the bones, flex and extend each suspect joint, and assess your pet’s musculature for symmetry and change in muscle mass.
5. Do a neurologic evaluation. There’s a good deal of overlap between a musculoskeletal and neurologic exam, but the emphasis here is on identifying whether the nervous system is functioning properly and, if not, where exactly in the nervous system the problem lies.
6. Take X-rays and imaging studies. X-rays are a basic first line of testing for many limping patients. Some pets may require more sophisticated imaging, like an MRI or CT scan.
7. Order laboratory tests. Blood and urine testing may be useful if your veterinarian suspects certain underlying causes. Aside from a basic urinalysis and a CBC and chemistry panel, your vet may choose to order other tests to help identify specific diseases, such as myasthenia gravis or one of many tick-borne diseases.
Depending on the underlying cause, treatment can range from a simple pain and anti-inflammatory medication to surgery and long-term rehabilitative therapy.
Any pet who appears to have a leg problem — that includes limping, hobbling, dragging, holding up a limb or merely favoring one leg over another — should see a veterinarian. If you can’t schedule an immediate appointment, there are some measures you can take to keep your pet comfortable in the meantime.
Confine your pet. To prevent jumping or running, keep your pet enclosed in a small area.
Give vet-approved medicine. If your pet’s limping is clearly due to a previously diagnosed condition for which medication had been prescribed in the past, it may be acceptable to reinstitute drug therapy during a flare-up. Just be sure to ask your veterinarian if this is a good, long-term approach.
Monitor your pet's symptoms. If your pet exhibits other unusual symptoms, such as fever, poor appetite and lethargy, head for your vet or an animal hospital. These are typically signs that your pet needs emergency care.
This article has been reviewed by a Veterinarian.
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