Limping and Lameness

by Nancy Boland

Just like humans, dogs sometimes break bones, sprain muscles, slip discs or tear ligaments, all of which can lead to the sudden onset of limping. These can occur suddenly while dogs are doing something as simple as climbing the stairs.


In most limping cases there will be no external sign of damage. However, limbs may dangle at an unnatural angle when fractured or dislocated. Sometimes bleeding as well as swelling can occur.

Primary Cause

Accidents and other traumatic origins are the most common causes, though slow, chronic degeneration of a ligament or disc, for example, can sometimes lead to a sudden onset of orthopaedic pain or lameness.

limping 1

Immediate Care

  1. Do not move your dog after an accident.
  2. Check for broken bones by observing the angle of the limb and its stability. As a rule of thumb, weight-bearing lameness is unlikely to be a fracture.
  3. Lame dogs should be confined and their movements restricted for a few days.
  4. Persistent lameness (more than 24 hours) or a more severe lameness requires immediate attention from your vet.

Severe pain or swelling

  • If the dog is large and is able to walk on three legs, allow him to walk to the car and take him to the vet immediately. Small dogs will need to be gently carried.
  • If the dog is suffering from back pain rather than a swollen limb, cradle them while carrying to the car.

In mild cases

  • Apply a cold compress (such as a wet cloth or bag of frozen peas) to the joint to help reduce inflammation.
  • If the area remains inflamed or the dog exhibits pain for more than 24 hours, always seek the advice and care of your vet.


The cause of a limp can often be diagnosed with just a simple physical examination. However, X-rays and manipulation of the affected area under sedation may also be required.


Never exercise a lame dog. Your dog must be allowed to rest completely for a few days and up to several weeks if necessary. When the lameness subsides, continue resting them for at least another 24 to 48 hours. Only then should you reintroduce exercise, and only in a gentle and progressive manner.

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