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

If you see that your dog 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 dog’s step.

When you bring your pet in, your veterinarian will likely evaluate him 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 such as Lyme disease, fractures, soft tissue (ligament, tendon, or muscle) 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 dog recover fully and even avoid surgery. And if your dog 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 dog.

Sprains, Strains, and Torn Ligaments

For minor injuries, such as a slight muscle pull, your veterinarian may limit your dog’s exercise and activity. Exercise restrictions usually include keeping your dog in a small space –– for example, a crate –– and taking him or her for only short walks on a leash. Closely following these instructions can sometimes keep minor injuries from requiring expensive treatment or even surgery. Your veterinarian may also prescribe anti-inflammatory medications to help ease your dog’s pain. You should only give your pet medications that are prescribed by your veterinarian.

Traumatic Injury and Joint Replacement

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

If your dog has a broken bone in his leg, it may be immobilized in a molded splint or cast for four to six weeks or possibly longer. If your dog must undergo complex joint surgery, your veterinarian may prescribe complete cage rest (see box), followed by another four weeks of exercise restriction. After that, your veterinarian will offer advice on gradually increasing your dog’s activity level.

In some cases, your veterinarian may also prescribe physical therapy, including massage and hydrotherapy, to help your dog heal.

Post-Surgery Care at Home

When you leave the hospital, your veterinarian will likely prescribe medications for you to give your dog. You’ll also need to check the cast or surgical site daily and keep your dog 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 dog’s behavior, appetite, and water intake. If you notice anything unusual –– for example, he 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

When taking your dog out for bathroom breaks, keep him on a leash at all times.

Follow any instructions you get about avoiding stairs and slippery floors, and ask whether you should attach the leash to a collar versus a harness. Also ask about the best way to lift or support your dog when necessary; your veterinarian may recommend using a towel to support your dog as he walks outside to relieve himself.

Follow Up

No matter the cause of your dog’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, you vet will 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 dog 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 dog 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 pooch by keeping 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 dog 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.