By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated 6 December 2011)
The following are some common causes of and treatments for limping in cats and dogs.
Joint, Bone, or Muscle Injury
Limping, frequently accompanied by swelling, is often caused by injuries to the tendons, ligaments, bones, cartilage, or muscles.
In the case of serious injuries, medical attention should be sought immediately. Pain medication and surgery may be required for certain types of injuries. If you’re not sure about the seriousness of an injury, consulting a veterinarian is recommended to be on the safe side. Even if the injury isn’t serious, a veterinarian can give advice on how to speed the recovery process.
Cuts, Punctures, and Infections
Cats and dogs often suffer cuts to the paws due to stepping on sharp objects or fights with other animals. They may also suffer punctures from embedded objects such as thorns (which can be hard to spot on pets with long fur between their toes).
Small cuts usually heal up on their own, though if they get infected, antibiotics may be required. Drs. Eldredge et al. (2007) recommend cleaning minor wounds with tap water or, ideally, a diluted solution of Betadine or Chlorhexidine (they recommend against the use of hydrogen peroxide). Eldredge et al. suggest the following dilutions:
- 25 ml of 2% Chlorhexidrine in 2 liters of water
- 10 ml of 10% Betadine in 2 liters water
Veterinarian Ron Hines (2011) recommends soaking a cut paw four times per day in a warm Betadine solution.
For deep or serious wounds, seek veterinary care (if you’re not sure about the seriousness of a wound, consult a veterinarian to be on the safe side). Deeper punctures should be treated with antibiotics due to the infection risk. Oral antibiotics are usually better for this purpose, as topical solutions are often licked off by pets trying to treat their own injuries.
Although a bandage may be required initially due to bleeding, Hines warns that paw bandages left on for too long may do more harm than good, as they can trap debris, bacteria, and moisture, slowing the healing process.
Infections aren’t always caused by external sources. Excessive licking of the paws due to allergies, stress, or boredom can cause raw patches or even abscesses that make walking painful.
Overgrown toenails may cause limping, especially if they break off or grow into the paw pads. This is often a problem in pets that are older and less active. Even if they don’t break, overgrown claws can alter a pet’s gait, increasing the risk of arthritis.
Broken nails that expose the quick (pink part at the center) can be very painful and present an infection risk, so they may require veterinary care. For this reason, you should be very careful not to cut into the quick when trimming a pet’s claws.
Botched declawing surgery can cause permanent limping and other physical problems. For this reason, as well as the psychological and behavioural problems that sometimes result from the surgery, I strongly recommend against it (you can find out more about the problems associated with this surgery on the Declawing Information Page).
Bites and Stings
Bites and stings are usually not a serious medical problem unless they become infected, in which case antibiotics may be required. However, if you see facial swelling, weakness, pale gums, rapid respiration, vomiting, loss of bowel or bladder control, or other symptoms of illness after a sting or bite, this suggests anaphylactic shock, which is a medical emergency. In such cases, owners should seek veterinary care for their pets immediately (if you see any cause for concern but you’re not sure whether or not it’s anaphylaxis, err on the side of caution and take your cat to a vet).
If your pet has been stung by a honeybee, you may need to remove the stinger because it will continue to release venom for some time afterward (wasps and bumblebees don’t leave their stingers behind). Vetstream’s Insect Stings Fact Sheet recommends using a credit card to remove the stinger: scrape the card lightly over the skin to lift the stinger out of its position. You can use tweezers to remove a stinger, but this should be a last resort because there is a risk of squeezing more venom into the area before the stinger is extracted.
If a sting or bite is causing pain, itching, and/or mild swelling, wrap an ice pack, ice cubes, or a package of frozen vegetables in a tea towel and press it gently against the affected area (don’t apply ice directly to your pet’s skin). If the swelling is excessive or your pet is still suffering from swelling, red inflamed skin, pain, or any other concerning symptoms several hours later, consult a veterinarian.
In the case of limp caused by arthritis (a common problem in elderly pets), some pet owners have seen benefits after supplementing with glucosamine-chondroitin or omega-3 fatty acids. Be sure to use supplements specifically formulated for pets, and check with your veterinarian before giving supplements.
The risk of developing arthritis is reduced if pets are prevented from becoming obese, and helping pets lose weight can reduce arthritis pain once the condition has developed. Other potential therapies may include the use of anti-inflammatory medications, exercise, gentle massage, and warmth (i.e., a heating pad, especially in the winter). Don’t give anti-inflammatories or pain medication without first consulting a veterinarian (medications formulated for humans can be toxic to pets, and even medications designed for pets can be harmful if the wrong dose is given). Also, don’t leave pets unsupervised with heating pads.
Limping Syndrome (Caused by Feline Calicivirus)
Feline Calicivirus (FCV), also known as cat flu, can trigger limping syndrome (the FCV vaccination has also triggered temporary lameness in some cases). Cats usually recover from limping syndrome on their own without treatment over the course of a few days. However, in severe cases, a veterinarian may prescribe anti-inflammatory medication specifically formulated for cats.
Blood Clot in the Leg (Heart Disease)
Cats and dogs with heart disease (cardiomyopathy) may suffer blood clots that block major arteries to their hind limbs. The result is weakness in the leg, pain, and lameness or even paralysis, depending on how bad the blockage is. This is a very serious complication that is difficult to treat, and the prognosis is often poor, though some animals beat the odds with luck and good veterinary care. Heart failure symptoms include:
- Loss of appetite
- Rapid breathing/breathing difficulties
- Weight loss
Diabetic pets may suffer from neuropathy, a degeneration of the nerves in the legs that can lead to weakness and limping or odd gait. This is more common in cats than dogs.
Neuropathy usually afflicts that back legs, though in severe cases it may be seen in the front legs as well. Treatments include treating the diabetes with insulin (or adjusting the current insulin dosage if the pet is already being treated), supplementing with Vitamin B12, and/or dietary modifications.
If you are worried that your pet may be diabetic, watch for the following diabetes symptoms:
- Increased appetite
- Increased thirst and urination
- Urinating in inappropriate places
- Weight loss
Additional Causes of Limping in Cats and Dogs
Additional causes of limping in pets include:
- Autoimmune diseases
- Back or neck injury
- Bladder infection
- Bone tumours and diseases
- Certain cancers
- Diseases caused by parasites (i.e., tics)
- Hip or elbow dysplasia
- Luxating Patellas – “Trick Knees”
- Malnutrition (poor diet)
- Neurological conditions
- Panosteitis (growing pains)
*Never give your pet aspirin or acetaminophen formulated for people. Check with your veterinarian before administering pain medications or anti-inflammatories – these medications are highly toxic to cats at relatively small doses, and too much can even harm a large dog (see Can You Give Dogs and Cats ASPIRIN® or TYLENOL® for more information on this.).
This article is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for veterinary consultation and care.
- Barchas, E., DVM. (2011). “Limping in Cats and Dogs,” “Heart Disease in Dogs,” and “Feline Heart Disease.”DrBarchas.com.
- Carlson, D., DVM, & Giffin, J.M. (2011). “Limping and Lameness in Cats.” WebMD.com.
- Eldredge, D.M., DVM; Carlson, L.D., DVM; Carlson, D.G., DVM; & Giffin, J.M., MD. (2007). Cat Owner’s Home Veterinary Handbook and Dog Owner’s Home Veterinary Handbook, 4th Edition, Wiley Publishing Inc.
- Feline Advisory Bureau. (n.d.). “Limping Syndrome and Feline Calicivirus.” FABCats.org.
- Hines, R., DVM, PhD. (2011). “Why Is My Pet Limping? The Pet-owners Guide To Limping Dogs Cats and Ferrets.” 2ndChance.info.
- PetMD. (2011). “Heart (Aortic) Blood Clot in Dogs.” PetMD.com.
- Trout, M., Dr. (2011). “Lameness (Limping) in Cats.” PetPlace.com.
- VetInfo. (2010). “Feline Diabetic Neuropathy” and “Diabetic Neuropathy in Dogs.”VetInfo.com.
- Vetstream. (n.d.). “Fact Sheet: Insect Stings.”Vetstream.co.uk.