- If your pet collapses, is unable to walk or get up, or experiences severe trauma, these are considered “RED” – or true emergencies – on our Fast Track Triage system. We advise you to seek immediate veterinary care. Please call ahead of your arrival so the veterinary team knows to expect you!
- If your pet is limping, has a small wound/laceration, or has a broken toenail, these are considered “YELLOW” – or semi-urgent cases – on our Fast Track Triage system. We recommend having your pet evaluated by your family veterinarian or local animal emergency hospital within 24 hours. Call ahead of your arrival so the veterinary team knows to expect you, and if your pet’s condition worsens, call the team back to inform them of the status change.
Limping in a pet (commonly called lameness) can be disconcerting to see, knowing your beloved pet may be in pain. It can be difficult to know how to proceed, especially if you aren’t sure of the cause or level of urgency. To help you better assess your pet’s limping, we’re sharing more information on potential causes as well as when to seek emergency care versus when to treat at home until you can see your family veterinarian.
What does lameness look like?
Not all lameness looks the same, and it varies based on the cause and location of lameness. Most commonly, you may notice the following:
- Holding a limb up/not putting weight on the limb
- Walking “gingerly”/putting a mild amount of weight on a limb
- Dragging a limb or scuffing of the toes while walking
- Consistently licking or biting at a limb or a specific area (such as a paw pad)
- General changes in behavior (Examples include lethargy, decreased appetite, trembling, hiding, vocalizing)
What causes lameness?
There are many possible causes of lameness, which may be sudden or chronic. Common causes include:
- Trauma such as fractures, dislocations, or open wounds
- Joint diseases such as elbow or hip dysplasia or osteoarthritis
- Infectious diseases such as Lyme disease
- Auto-immune disease
- Muscle or ligament strain
- Neurologic disease
- Bone cancer
When should my pet be seen by a veterinarian?
In many cases, lameness is not an emergency and may not require immediate attention, in which case your pet can be evaluated by your primary care veterinarian. However, if you notice the following signs, emergency evaluation is warranted:
- Obvious limb deformity
- Swelling or open wound(s)
- Lameness that persists for more than 24 hours
- Lameness paired with other signs like not eating or a fever
What will happen at the vet?
The veterinarian evaluating your pet will perform a physical examination and will also ask you a series of questions to complete a thorough evaluation. Providing the following information can be vital in diagnosing your pet:
- How long has your pet been lame?
- Is your pet always showing lameness or only intermittently or during certain activities?
- Is your pet showing lameness on one limb or multiple limbs?
- Is there any known trauma?
- Does your pet have any other health issues?
- Are there other clinical signs (not eating, lethargy, other)?
- Has your pet been treated for this problem before?
The veterinarian will perform a physical examination and may also perform a complete orthopedic and neurologic examination. While the examination is one of the most helpful tools for the veterinarian, additional testing is often required and may include the following:
- X-rays or advanced imaging like CT or MRI
- Joint fluid testing
How will my pet be treated?
Treatment of your pet’s lameness will be dependent upon the severity of their lameness and the overall diagnosis. Short-term and long-term treatment may include the following:
- Pain management with prescription pain medication
- Application of a splint or bandage
- Exercise restriction/strict rest at home
- Physical rehabilitation
What can I do at home?
If you notice your pet limping at home, you can help by doing the following:
- Check for wounds, bleeding, swelling, or possible foreign material, which can be stuck on their paw pads.
- Small wounds can be gently cleaned with a warm cloth – do not use hydrogen peroxide or alcohol. You should then still follow-up with a veterinarian to ensure there is no infection.
- Keep your pet rested, including confinement to a small area or kennel. Don’t let your pet jump from high furniture such as a couch or a bed.
- Apply an ice pack (wrapped in a towel – NOT in direct contact with their skin) to the affected area to help with pain and swelling.
- Assist your pet with walking by using a towel as a sling.
- Do not administer over-the-counter medications without veterinarian approval.
If you have any concerns about your pet’s mobility, consult with your family veterinarian to determine the best course of action. If you are uncertain if your pet’s limp is an emergency, call your local animal emergency hospital so they can properly triage your pet and decide if your pet needs to be seen.