A number of things — infections, injuries, or arthritis — can sideline your cat, leaving him with a limp. Here is how to figure out what’s wrong and get him the help he needs.

If you see that your cat is having trouble walking — even if it doesn’t seem like that big a deal — you should make an appointment with your veterinarian, who can determine the problem and offer targeted recommendations to help put the spring back in your cat’s step. As tempting as it is to wait a few days to see if your cat’s limp gets better on its own, doing so can turn a small problem into a bigger one.

When you bring your cat in, your veterinarian will likely evaluate your cat with a thorough physical examination and may perform lab tests and X-rays to get to the root of the problem. Common causes of limping (also known as lameness) include infections, fractures, soft tissue (ligament, muscle, or tendon) injuries, and arthritis.

No matter the cause of the lameness, it’s very important that you follow your veterinarian’s recommendations for rehabilitation and recovery, as sometimes these instructions may help your cat recover fully and even avoid surgery. And if your cat does require surgery, careful rehabilitation can ward off additional problems. That’s essential, since a fracture or joint replacement site that becomes reinjured or infected can leave few treatment options for your cat.

Sprains, Strains, and Pulled Muscles

For minor injuries, such as a slight muscle pull, your veterinarian may limit your cat’s exercise and activity. Exercise restrictions usually include keeping your cat in a small space like a crate with a bed, a litterbox with a low side(s), and food and water dishes. Closely following these instructions can sometimes keep minor injuries from requiring expensive treatment or even surgery. Your veterinarian may also prescribe medications to help ease your cat’s pain. You should give your cat only medications that are prescribed by a veterinarian.

Traumatic Injury and Joint Replacement

Complicated injuries generally require a more involved recovery period. Typically, full recovery from a complex fracture repair or hip replacement surgery can take up to two or three months, and some cats need six months of careful monitoring and rehabilitation before they are completely recovered.

If your cat has a broken bone in his leg, it may be immobilized in a molded splint or cast for at least four to six weeks and possibly longer. If your cat must undergo complex joint surgery, your veterinarian will likely prescribe complete cage rest (see below), with additional guidelines on how to gradually increase your cat’s allowed activity level.

Post-Surgery Care at Home

When you leave the hospital, your veterinarian will likely prescribe medications for you to give your cat. You’ll also need to check the cast or surgical site daily and keep your cat from scratching or chewing at the sutures or bandage. If he does, an Elizabethan collar — also known as an “e” collar — may be necessary.

Also smart: Monitor your cat’s behavior, appetite, and water intake. If you notice anything unusual — for example, your cat seems strangely tired or agitated — contact your veterinarian.

If you notice any of the following signs, get in touch with your veterinarian immediately:

  • Swelling of the limb or surgical site
  • Skin rash or pressure sores (red, blistered, or raw areas)
  • Unusual smell or leakage from the surgical site
  • Your cat seems uncomfortable

Your veterinarian may also prescribe physical therapy and massage may also be helpful to your cat’s recovery.

Follow Up

No matter the cause of your cat’s lameness, it’s critical to keep all recommended follow-up appointments, so that your veterinarian can monitor your pet’s progress. If sutures were used, your veterinarian may need to remove them. If a cast was placed, he’ll want to check it periodically and eventually remove it. He may also order X-rays or other tests to see how well the injury is healing.

Extra Tip: Cage Rest

Sometimes, veterinarians recommend “cage rest”: keeping your cat in an appropriately sized crate to restrict activity. This can be difficult for both you and your pet. If your veterinarian has advised you to keep your pet in a crate, it’s vitally important to do so, even if your pet is unhappy or seems to be healing. To make this trying time easier for your cat, keep him occupied with plenty of toys and an occasional low-calorie treat. You may also want to turn on a radio or television for company when no one is home or pamper him with daily grooming, which can be a welcome distraction. If your cat craves company, consider placing the cage in a high-traffic area where he can watch the household’s activity. But if he’s shy or nervous, it may be a better idea to keep the crate in a quiet room.

This article has been reviewed by a Veterinarian.