Lameness in a dog is not always serious, but it can nevertheless lead a concerned owner to fear the worst.
Discreet or marked, lameness in dogs can be the symptom of many disorders which, even benign, are never harmless. Here are some indications on the different problems that can lead your dog to limp and the solutions to implement.
What is dog lameness?
Lameness, in dogs and all other animals, is characterized by a jerky, unusual gait that reflects a difficulty in moving. There are different kinds of lameness, some moderate and others more severe, which do not manifest themselves in the same way.
In moderate lameness, the dog still uses all four legs to walk, but tries to put as little pressure as possible on the leg(s) that are causing him pain. In cases of severe lameness, the animal may be forced to walk on three legs, avoiding at all costs the limb that is causing him pain.
It is important to note that lameness is an "analgesic" posture, meaning that a dog limps to avoid or reduce the pain it feels when walking. Also, a dog can limp without having any injury or problem directly related to his paw: a limp can reveal a back, lumbar or shoulder problem.
Finally, lameness, especially when moderate, may only occur at certain times. Depending on the intensity of the pain your animal feels, it may only limp when trotting or galloping, or only on soft or hard ground.
How to detect lameness in dogs?
In four-legged animals, lameness is not always easy to observe, especially when it concerns the hind legs. Concerning the front limbs, we very often observe a tilting of the head which accompanies and amplifies the limping movement.
A dog with a right forelimb limp will tend to raise his head exaggeratedly when he puts this limb on the ground in order to put as little weight as possible on it. On the other hand, he will lower his head a lot by pressing on his healthy limb (the left one) to put all his weight on it and relieve the affected leg.
For the hind limbs, it's a different story: moderate lameness is almost invisible in quadrupeds. In fact, it is said in the equestrian world that a front lameness can be seen, but that a rear lameness can be heard.
If your dog seems to be having some difficulty moving, looks less fit than usual, or has had an accident that you think may have caused a limp, walk him on a "sound" floor, such as tile or wood, and listen carefully. The dog's walk and trot are symmetrical gaits, so you should hear each step sound in a perfectly even rhythm.
The walk is a four-beat gait in which your dog moves his legs forward one after the other, which is the ideal gait to detect lameness. You should therefore hear the sounds of your dog's four legs at regular intervals if he is not limping.
If you hear a longer or shorter interval between two sounds, your dog is limping: all you have to do is listen carefully and observe your pet to find the painful limb. The affected leg is put on the ground for a shorter time, and the healthy limbs, used to compensate, for a longer time.
Why is my dog limping?
There are many causes of lameness in your dog, but you can rule out some of them by carefully examining the affected leg(s).
Claws and Pads
Look closely at your dog's claws and pads for visible trauma. Your dog may have stepped on a sharp object, such as a sharp stone (slate or granite, for example), a piece of glass or a nail. His claws may be too long and may have injured him or become infected: sometimes this type of injury is difficult to see, so don't hesitate to gently squeeze each of your dog's toes to see if he shows any signs of pain.
Tendons and muscles
If the ends of your pet's paws seem to be in good condition, gently work your hand up the length of the limbs. A tendon or muscle disorder can become hot or swollen, so compare the temperature and shape of the affected paw with a healthy one. Look for an unusual bump or hot spot, especially toward the back of your dog's paw. It is also possible to walk your dog (only if the lameness is mild) on a soft floor to see if this seems to accentuate the lameness: if it does, chances are that the origin of the problem is tendon.
Bones and Joints
Like tendon or muscle disorders, bone and joint problems can be detected by feeling your dog's limbs and comparing the temperature and shape of the affected legs with the healthy ones. A painful joint, dislocation or fracture often results in swelling of the injured limb. If you see visible swelling or a fracture, don't touch your pet's wound or it will get worse. Instead, take your pet to your veterinarian quickly. If there is nothing visible and the lameness is moderate, try to gently bend your pet's joints and give him some movement, paying close attention to any signs of pain he may show. In contrast to tendon disorders, it is the hard ground that accentuates joint lameness. You can therefore observe your animal moving on asphalt to refine your diagnosis.
Back, Hips and Shoulders
If you can't find anything wrong with your dog's legs, go back upstairs and look at his shoulders, spine and pelvis. Your dog may have a stuck or displaced vertebra, or a dislocated or fractured hip or shoulder. It could also be tendonitis in the shoulder, or a non-traumatic problem such as hip dysplasia. On the other hand, there is no need to look for a clavicle facture or dislocation in your companion: dogs do not have one, except, in some specimens, a small rudiment that is part of the scapula.
Dogs with lameness caused by diseases
Like humans, dogs are subject to joint and bone diseases that can manifest themselves by lameness, accompanied or not by an alteration of the animal's general condition.
Hip and Elbow Dysplasia: This condition, mostly genetic, develops in growing dogs and manifests itself by an exacerbated laxity of the joint. The movement of the affected joint becomes abnormal and leads to early wear of the cartilage, the appearance of fibrous tissue around the joint and the formation of osteoarthritis. Animals prone to hip dysplasia are Labradors, German Shepherds, Golden Retrievers and almost all large dogs (Mastiff, Cane Corso, Newfoundland, etc.)
Osteochondrosis of the shoulder, hock or knees is an abnormality in the development of the cartilage of the young dog, causing it to thicken and sometimes fracture. The diagnosis is usually made at 4 to 10 months of age, and the prognosis is quite good, especially for osteochondrosis of the shoulder - the most common. The treatment of this condition usually requires a benign, but potentially very expensive, surgery.
Bone cancer is a degeneration of your dog's bone cells that mutate into tumors. The most common bone cancer in dogs is osteosarcoma, a malignant bone tumor that affects larger dogs. The prognosis is poor, but mainly because the vast majority of bone cancers in dogs are diagnosed too late, the animals often die from complications of their cancers.
Primary osteoarthritis is a "natural" form of osteoarthritis, due to wear and tear on the joints and not to a genetic defect. It mainly affects older dogs, but can also develop early in dogs that have been subjected to intense physical effort throughout their lives or in obese animals. There is no cure for osteoarthritis, which is not a lethal disease, but can be extremely painful depending on its stage of development, and can even prevent your dog from performing certain movements completely. Fortunately, it is possible to relieve the pain with medication or accessories (hot water bottle, heating mat, etc.) adapted to the stage of the disease.
Inflammatory arthritis, which is often confused with osteoarthritis, is a disease of the cartilage that causes early wear and tear on the joints. Unlike osteoarthritis, inflammatory arthritis is a chronic disease, which can be treated with infiltrations, but almost never disappears permanently.
Panosteitis is a disease of unknown origin that affects mostly large and growing dogs, but can occur in all specimens. It is a disease of the spinal cord of the long bones, which causes severe pain and dejection in the animal. The only treatment is to control the pain, but fortunately panosteitis is a self-limiting disease, which disappears as it came without leaving any sequelae.
Hypertrophic osteodystrophy, or metaphyseal osteopathy, is another disease of undetermined origin, which affects the long bones of large and growing dogs. This disease has a good prognosis in its mild form, but can leave irreversible bone deformities in its severe form. The only treatment for this disease is palliative and aims to reduce your dog's pain, although a healthy diet can also act as a preventive treatment.
Patella luxation can result from trauma, but is most often a genetic defect in small breeds. The patella bone is then displaced from its socket, sometimes occasionally or systematically. The prognosis depends on the severity of the dislocation, and the treatment is usually surgical with a risk of recurrence in the most severe cases.
Certain neurological conditions can also cause motor disorders in dogs, which can lead to lameness. Finally, diseases specific to the dog's foot, such as pododermatitis, can cause inflammation of the nails and hinder your pet's movements.
What to do if my dog is limping?
A dog's lameness should never be overlooked, as it is a sign of pain in the animal, no matter how severe. Start by carefully examining your pet to try to detect a visible or palpable cause that would direct you to a potential cause.
If it is a simple thorn in the paw or a small wound, remove the entire foreign body if it seems easy to extract and disinfect the wound with a dog-friendly product (e.g., Biseptin or Betadine). Then, monitor and clean the wound daily to make sure it doesn't get infected: redness, heat or swelling should alert you and lead you straight to the veterinarian.
If the thorn, piece of glass or other foreign object is too deeply embedded in your dog's paw, take him to the vet instead: by fiddling with your dog's wound, you risk not only hurting him, but also aggravating his injury and causing a superinfection. Finally, if the cause of the lameness is joint, bone, muscle, tendon, or if you can't determine it, the best thing to do is to go to the vet!
How do you deal with a limping dog?
If your dog is limping, first immobilize him and inspect him carefully to try to determine the cause of the problem. If you detect a minor sore on his foot, clean and disinfect it daily until it heals. Otherwise, the best thing to do is to visit a veterinarian who will be able to diagnose and treat your dog.
What causes lameness in dogs?
There are many illnesses or injuries that can cause lameness in dogs, and you can only determine the cause by carefully examining your pet or, more often, by taking him to a veterinarian.
How to relieve a dog's limp due to osteoarthritis?
If your dog is getting old and is dragging his feet in cold weather, you can offer him a heating mat that will maintain the viscosity of the synovial fluid in his joints and reduce friction. Also, watch his diet: overweight dogs suffer more when they have osteoarthritis. If the pain is too strong and your dog has difficulty moving, the best thing to do is to consult a veterinarian who will prescribe a painkiller.
My dog is limping, is it serious?
Lameness can be a symptom of a variety of disorders, some of which are minor, but some of which are extremely severe. If you are unable to detect the cause of your dog's lameness after inspecting his limbs, or if you detect a serious injury (fracture, dislocation, etc.), I recommend that you take your dog to a veterinarian immediately.
The veterinarian will be able to diagnose and inform you about the severity of the lameness or the pathology behind your dog's lameness. Lameness in dogs is a visible cause of a problem that can be as minor as it is major, so it should never be ignored or taken lightly.
While investigating the causes of your dog's lameness on your own can be a good start to helping him, the best thing to do is often to take him to a canine health professional.