Pet Project: How to help a limping animal : Dr. Dana Koch, correspondent

Dear Dr. Dana,

My dog Buster is limping on his leg and I’m wondering what could have caused this and whether there is anything I can do to help him at home prior to scheduling a veterinary visit?

Dear Reader,

One of the most challenging aspects of being a pet owner is that our furry friends are unable to tell us how their injury occurred, what part of the body is injured and if they are in pain.

As a pet owner and a veterinarian, we end up doing a good deal of investigative work to figure out the underlying cause. Here are some of the common causes for limping that I encounter on a daily basis:

1. Foreign body: In some cases a dog may have a foreign object lodged in their foot. I often find a thorn, pebbles, plant material or a piece of stick caught in the sensitive skin in between an animal’s toes. Even sticky substances such as tree sap and gum can affect a dog or cat’s normal gait or stride. This is extremely uncomfortable and can cause an animal to limp or lick at the affected area. Often simple removal of the object leads to immediate relief and improvement.

2. Soft tissue injury: Similar to a person with muscle soreness or a strain after exercise, this is a type of injury animals can experience. In many cases these types of injuries can resolve on their own with appropriate rest. In certain cases anti-inflammatory or pain medication is prescribed to help the patient feel more comfortable.

3. Ligament injury: A common injury we see in some very active dogs is a cranial cruciate ligament tear. The cranial cruciate ligament is an important stabilizer of the knee joint. In humans this ligament is called the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL). Rupture of the cranial cruciate ligament is caused by a variety of factors, including activity, weight of the animal, genetics, conformation of the leg and aging of the ligament. There are several treatment options for this injury, including medical management with pain medications, anti-inflammatories, as well as physical therapy. For certain animals, based on size, age, severity of the injury and activity level, surgery may be the best course of treatment. Surgical intervention is aimed at helping to stabilize the knee joint for long-term usage. Pet owners should be aware that 40-60 percent of dogs that have torn the cranial cruciate in one leg will at some future time develop a similar problem in the other knee.

4. Skeletal injuries: A true fracture or break in a bone can occur in our dogs and cats. Majority of the time these animals are not using the injured limb at all and are in extreme pain. It is best to perform X-rays to evaluate the extent of the fracture and then decide on an appropriate course of treatment. These broken bones can be repaired in various ways depending on the bone that is affected, and the type of fracture. A surgeon may use a plate and screws, a surgical pin or a splint to help with the healing process.

5. Arthritis: In many of our senior animals arthritic changes to their joints can cause enough discomfort for the animal to result in stiffness, difficulty rising or laying down and/or limping. The aging process causes the cartilage surface of joints to thin out and degenerate. As this cartilage decreases the bones can rub against each other, resulting in inflammation of the joint capsule and release of excessive joint fluid. In many arthritic joints, the formation of osteophytes or extra bony growths can occur. Once the animal is painful in a specific joint or limb they will begin to use this leg less resulting in muscle atrophy. Many of the degenerative joint changes can be observed on X-rays by your veterinarian. Our animals suffering from arthritis can often benefit from supplements such as glucosamine and chondroitin. Additionally, veterinarians will often discuss anti-inflammatory medications, physical therapy and alternative therapies such as acupuncture and cold laser treatments.

6. Developmental conditions: There are several conditions that we diagnosis in younger animals that can cause limping or leg pain. A very common orthopedic condition is a patellar luxation. The patella is the dog’s kneecap and with this condition the kneecap moves out of the normal position. There are different severity levels of a patellar luxation and it commonly affects small dogs, such as Yorkshire terriers, Chihuahuas, Pomeranians and Boston terriers. It can be present in one or both knees. Depending on the severity, surgery may be recommended, otherwise medical management is implemented to help with discomfort or arthritic changes to the joint. Another developmental condition that is observed in many dogs, more commonly young large-breed dogs, is elbow dysplasia. Forelimb lameness, decreased range of motion of the front legs and pain on extension of the elbows are all common clinical signs of the condition. It is caused by abnormal growth of cells, tissue or bone in the front legs. If your animal is limping on a front leg you may want to evaluate for this condition.

If your animal is injured it is best to keep him comfortable and call your veterinarian to schedule an evaluation. Always keep in mind that an injured animal may act defensive and out of character if he is in pain. You should use caution in trying to determine the source and severity of the injury.

Dr. Dana Koch, a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, works for HousePaws Mobile Veterinary Service. Her professional interests include dentistry, pocket pets, preventative medicine and internal medicine. She services Bucks County, Philadelphia and South Jersey.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top