Various conditions cause canine limping—one of the most common reasons pet owners seek veterinary care for their dog. Some canine limping causes are more concerning than others, and many dog owners aren’t sure when they can help manage their furry pal’s limp at home and when they should seek veterinary care. Our Southern Arizona Veterinary Specialty and Emergency Center team understands that seeing your dog struggle can be difficult. Read our guide to potential causes and treatment options for canine limping.   

Two types of limping in dogs 

Veterinarians categorize limping in two groups—acute (i.e., sudden onset) and chronic (i.e., gradual onset):

  • Acute limping — Acute or sudden onset limping comes on quickly, usually after an injury or trauma. 
  • Chronic limping — Chronic limping develops gradually over time, and an underlying or degenerative condition is usually the cause. 

If your dog is limping, first ask yourself whether the limp appeared suddenly or has been developing gradually over some time. Your response can help your veterinarian narrow down the possible causes or can help you determine whether your dog’s limping is a veterinary emergency. Both limping types can be equally serious and may require veterinary attention. However, you may be initially less concerned about a gradual onset limp because, depending on the condition’s severity, you may not notice the limp for awhile.  

Limping causes in dogs 

Limping has many potential causes, from chronic conditions to traumatic incidents. Some canine limping causes include:

  • Foreign bodies — If you’ve ever stepped on something sharp, you know how painful that can feel, and the same goes for your dog’s sensitive paw pads. Foreign bodies, such as glass, nails, sticks, and thorns, can cut and scrape your pet’s paw pads or become embedded in them, causing discomfort that leads to limping. 
  • Paw burns — Surfaces such as pavement and asphalt can become extremely hot, blistering or burning your dog’s paw pads. Dogs whose paws are burned may limp, avoid walking, or lick or chew their paw pads. To prevent your pet’s paws from getting burned, avoid walking during the middle of the day when temperatures are high. You can ensure the pavement is safe for your pet by testing the surface with your hand. If you cannot keep your hand on the pavement comfortably for 10 seconds, the surface is too hot for your dog’s paws.
  • Degenerative joint disease — Degenerative joint disease (DJD) commonly develops as a dog ages. Over time, the tissues lining the joint deteriorate and degenerate, causing joint pain and inflammation (i.e., arthritis or osteoarthritis). Limping is the most common DJD sign and is often accompanied by additional arthritic pain signs that include:
    • Decreased activity
    • An aversion to being touched or petted, especially in painful areas
    • Irritability
    • Inappetance
    • Limping
    • Muscle loss
    • Licking or biting at the painful area
    • House soiling, because a cat finds getting in and out of their litter box too painful, and a dog may be in too much pain to get outdoors
  • Valley fever — Valley Fever is caused by inhaling dust or dirt contaminated by Coccidioides fungi, and is common in dry, arid environments such as Southern Arizona. In addition to initial signs that include coughing, fever, weight loss, decreased appetite, and lethargy, disseminated infection can cause lameness. 
  • Osteosarcoma — Osteosarcoma (i.e., bone cancer) is the most common canine bone cancer. Bone cancer is extremely painful, and limping and swelling in the affected limb are the most common osteosarcoma signs. While any pet can develop osteosarcoma, large- and giant-breed dogs are genetically predisposed.  
  • Injury — Broken bones, fractures, sprains, dislocations, ligament tears, joint trauma, and spinal injuries can cause canine limping, which ranges in severity. An athletic and high-energy dog may ignore their body’s limits when jumping from heights and making quick turns during rigorous activities, which can lead to injury. 
  • Infection — An infected paw wound can be painful, causing your dog to limp. In  addition, Lyme disease—a common tick-borne infection—can cause joint inflammation and pain, which can result in limping. 

When to seek veterinary care for a limping pet

Your dogs can’t tell you their limping cause or the amount of pain they are feeling, but you are responsible for deciding if or when to seek veterinary care for your furry pal. Generally, if your dog’s limping is mild and they do not show any other illness signs, you can monitor them for a few days to see if they improve before seeking veterinary care. In some cases, your dog may require immediate veterinary attention, especially when they exhibit these signs:

  • Limping in combination with a fever
  • Limbs that feel hot to the touch
  • A limb that appears to be at an irregular angle
  • Moderate to severe swelling
  • A dislocated, dangling limb 

Treating limping in dogs 

The treatment your dog receives will depend on their limp’s underlying cause. Canine limping treatment may include:

  • Rest — Many minor conditions resolve on their own with activity restriction. 
  • Medications — Medications can reduce inflammation and pain. 
  • Joint supplements and injections — If your veterinarian diagnoses your pet with joint disease, such as arthritis, they may prescribe a high-quality supplement or administer a pain-relieving injection.
  • Physical therapy — Rehabilitation exercises may help treat some conditions.
  • Surgery — Your veterinarian will provide surgical intervention to address certain conditions, including most fractures, some dysplasias, and ligament ruptures. 

Canine limping has various causes, some mild and some severe. If you are concerned about your pet’s limping, we can help. To determine the underlying cause of your pet’s limping and to relieve their discomfort, schedule an appointment with our Southern Arizona Veterinary Specialty and Emergency Center team.