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My Dog Limps On His Front Leg: Now What?

My dog limps on his front leg. That’s exactly what I told the emergency room physician when I rushed my pooch to the hospital on Labor Day weekend. My dog tore both of his anterior cruciate ligaments (ACLs) in the past, and both legs required surgery. However, those tears were on his rear legs. This time around, my Cocker Spaniel displayed lameness on his front left leg, so now what?

You’ve arrived at this article because your dog is probably limping on one or both front paws, his front leg is held in the air when he walks, or he is showing some outward sign of front end lameness.

A few things that cause front leg limping in a dog include something stuck to their paw pad, a broken toenail, a cut on the paw, elbow injury, ligament damage, arthritis, or even a soft tissue injury from running, playing, or being startled. My dog’s limp was the result of fireworks.

My Cocker Spaniel was napping on Labor Day when an unexpected burst of fireworks went off outside. At the time, he was curled up on his favorite chair, and we were watching television. His front legs were nestled underneath his chest, so when he leaped from the chair, he landed on the floor in an awkward position. He stood up and walked out of the living room with a pronounced limp to his front left leg. Ugh.

My Dog Limps On His Front Leg: Now What?

We watched as our dog, Dexter, hobbled on three legs, with the fourth leg held slightly in the air. What is it about some Cocker Spaniels dogs who couldn’t care less about an injury and just want to keep going? That’s my dog and perhaps your pooch is the same way.

When Dexter tried to walk, he lifted his front leg and would not put full weight on it. Due to the lateness of the hour, we had to decide whether or not to rush him to the emergency vet. He had no sign of broken bones and was able to get by on three legs. If he wasn’t better by morning, we were going to the emergency vet.

Morning came and Dexter was still limping, not putting pressure on the leg, and so off to the emergency vet. He was diagnosed with a soft tissue injury, and I’ll explain what happened, typical and not-so-typical reasons for a dog to limp, when to seek emergency care, and how to help your dog avoid front leg injuries.

Possible Causes Of Front Leg Lameness In Dogs

There are two types of lameness (or limping) in dogs: gradual and sudden. Gradual pain or injury can be tricky and discrete. Dogs are masters of hiding pain, so a sudden lameness may actually have been developing for a while. One example is arthritis, which may start off gradually but left untreated or undiagnosed can lead to “sudden” symptoms.

Gradual pain may seem harmless but any sort of symptoms should be reported to your dog’s veterinarian. I recall my first Cocker Spaniel, Brandy Noel, and how she progressed from a grade 1 patellar luxation to a grade 2. She eventually required surgery to repair the shifted kneecap, but the onset and development from grade 1 to grade 2 were gradual.

Sudden lameness will appear as a result of injury or:

  • Skin infection
  • Paw injury
  • Painful growth, abscess, or lump
  • Cut or wound to part of the leg
  • Burn (i.e., dogs who walk on hot pavement)
  • Joint pain
  • Break or fracture
  • Nerve, ligament, or tendon damage
  • Elbow injury or elbow dysplasia
  • Cancer
  • Lyme disease
  • Soft tissue injury to a muscle (strain or sprain)
  • Back issues
  • Arthritis

We’ll explore a few of these a little further down.

dog limps on his front leg

Should I Take My Dog To The Vet If He Is Limping?

If your dog shows any outward signs of pain, discomfort, restlessness, or swelling, he should be taken to a veterinarian. If the injury occurs outside of your vet’s normal hours, you should find an emergency vet and not give any home remedies or medications.

These circumstances warrant a trip to the veterinarian immediately if your dog is limping or displaying front end lameness:

  • Bleeding
  • Unable to stand, get up, or move
  • Broken bone or fracture
  • Dragging a limb
  • Bug bite or bee sting
  • Fever (not everyone knows how to check a dog’s temperature, but if you do, and there is pain associated with a fever, seek veterinary care)
  • Swelling in the limb(s)
  • Trembling, shaking, crying, whining, inability to get comfortable, or any other outward sign of pain
  • Infection
  • Burn
  • Autoimmune disorder
  • Signs of other illness in conjunction with the lameness (diarrhea, vomiting, extreme fatigue)

Always put your dog’s needs first, as dogs are masterful at hiding pain. Sometimes, however, a dog will show pain and it is up to the pet parent to know the signs and symptoms. Never wait when it comes to helping a dog in dire need of medical care.

How To Move A Dog With Front Leg Lameness

When my Cocker Spaniel required emergency vet care for a leg injury, we had to place her on a blanket and use it as a makeshift sling. Any sort of sudden movement caused her pain, which she displayed by squealing aloud.

Here are a few ways to move a dog with a front leg injury or pain:

Blanket Stretcher

Use a blanket as a makeshift sling: If you have another person to help, this is the method that I used and recommend. Position your dog on the blanket so his entire body is supported lengthwise. Stand on opposite sides of the blanket with the dog in the middle. Prevent the dog from moving or bending as much as you can,

With one person on each side of the blanket, lift the corners and pull the blanket away from one another so it is taut and supportive for the dog. If you have a harder surface, use a stretcher, but if not a blanket comes in handy. If you are alone, you may have to drag the dog on the blanket gently as far as you can. Do not drag a dog down steps.

Here’s a general video of how to get a dog onto the blanket. It talks about spinal injuries, but the techniques are good for front leg issues, too:

Carry The Dog In Your Arms

If you are able to lift the dog to get him into your arms and then a vehicle, use this method. Use one arm to support your dog’s chest and the other arm beneath the dog’s abdomen, and in front of his hind legs.

Use A Pet Carrier

If your dog can be transported in a kennel, he is likely a smaller breed. A pet carrier can be used to move the dog, but ensure a blanket or soft material is placed inside the kennel first.

Canine Shoulder Injuries

Dogs have shoulder blades just as humans do, but they are not connected to the skeleton. How amazing is that?! The shoulder joint is called a ball and socket joint. In a dog with four legs, the shoulder joint is composed of the scapula (shoulder blade bones) and the humerus, or the upper bone of the front leg.

Now think of all the ligaments and tendons that connect all the different parts in that shoulder joint and the shoulder as a whole. Ligaments connect bone to bone. In college, the pneumonic device I learned was this: without a ligament, we’d be a blob. BLB (bone-ligament-bone). Tendons connect muscle to bone. Ligament and tendon injuries can happen in the front legs of a dog.

Shoulder injuries can cause a dog to exhibit front leg limping or lameness, as in our situation. Dexter sustained soft tissue damage to the shoulder and neck area.

Any number of activities can cause a shoulder injury in a dog, from jumping to overuse, running to swimming. If you have a chubby pooch, those extra pounds can also make him more prone to injury. For us, the dog was startled awake, jumped up, and had an awkward landing.

dog shoulder bone paw limping
See that scapula area and its relationship to the front legs?

Dogs with a shoulder issue will often be hesitant to put pressure on one or both front legs. Sometimes, the symptoms are intermittent. Remember that dogs are quite adept at hiding pain, so it’s your job to be observant and get him help.

The area can also swell and his neck range of motion may be limited. Only once the emergency veterinarian pointed it out did we notice our dog was not fond of moving his neck a certain way to look at us. Ah, the dreaded shoulder injury.

There are a whole host of other shoulder injuries that can cause front paw limping. Biceps brachii tenosynovitis is often seen in older and athletic dogs. The biceps brachii muscle and its tendons get inflamed. In supraspinatus tendinopathy, the tendon in this muscle tears. It sounds painful because it is. Your vet may talk about calcium deposits in this area.

Finally, the infraspinatus muscle is common in athletic dogs. Think about a dog who goes from zero to mach speed without warning. If a dog isn’t gradually introduced to the activity, he is likely to suffer a tear of the infraspinatus muscle, which limits the shoulder’s extension (away from the body). This injury is more disabling than it is painful.

When the muscles that support the shoulder bones are overused or injured, you may see front leg limping in your dog.

Dexter’s Front Leg Injury Diagnosis

After x-rays and a full examination by the emergency physician, our dog was diagnosed with a soft tissue injury to the shoulder as a result of his sudden jump.

He was given pain medication, Tramadol, and a muscle spasm medication, methocarbamol. By the end of the first day, he was putting pressure on his leg. By day two, he showed more improvement, and this is when I decided to try a pet-friendly CBD oil. Since quality hemp oil is a strong anti-inflammatory, I went that route. I kid you not: by day three, Dexter was no longer limping. I can’t say whether that helped directly or not, but the timing was impeccable.

A proper diagnosis from a veterinarian is crucial followed by rest and meds as required. Here is Dexter on day 2, notice the hobble/limp of the front end. The little whimper sounds are normal for Dexter – he is vocal on our walks since puppyhood.

Lyme Disease and Leg Lameness

Does this one surprise you? The limp can change from one leg to another and dog parents are often floored when a diagnosis of Lyme disease is made. Dogs that develop Lyme disease will do so between one and five months after being bit by the infected tick.

The lameness or limping is usually sudden and long after the bite, which is why it is often not associated with the tick. You may not even know a tick infected your dog, which is what happened to us. Here are some signs of Lyme disease in a dog:

  • Limping or lameness, sometimes changing from leg to leg
  • Warmth of the leg joints
  • Pain in the leg joints when the vet examines your dog
  • Pain or reluctance to rise from a laying or seated position
  • Stiff gait
  • Exercise intolerance
  • Lethargy
  • Enlarged lymph nodes
  • Weakness, weight loss, depression

Without treatment, a dog’s kidneys may suffer from Lyme disease. It can also affect the heart, neurologic system, and cause vomiting, diarrhea, and even death. Lyme nephritis is a deadly form of Lyme disease that shuts the kidneys down. If you have a Labrador Retriever or a Golden Retriever who tests positive for Lyme disease, vets will likely want to treat them because they tend to be more prone to Lyme nephritis.

What To Do: Always examine a dog for ticks and fleas. I do this twice a day in the warmer months and once a day otherwise without fail. If you find a tick, do not touch it. Remove with a tick key or other tick removal device and place it in a baggie or plastic container and take it to the vet. They can run tests to see if the tick is a Lyme carrier.

Lyme disease is treatable. Your dog can have an in-office SNAP 4 test done and also blood can be sent for more specialized testing to an outside lab. That outside lab saved our dog’s life when he was affected with IMT (immune-mediated thrombocytopenia).

Most infected ticks need to be on the dog for at least 24- 48 hours in order for Lyme disease to transmit. You can’t get Lyme disease from your dog, as it is not a transferrable disease. You can, however, become infected if a tick crawls off your dog and bites you (or if you get bitten by another infected tick).

Your dog’s veterinarian may provide medication such as amoxicillin or doxycycline, give recommendations on rest and exercise restriction, and want you to follow up for future testing.

We treat our dog non-chemically and we also treat our yard in the same non-chemical way.

What Not To Do For Dog Front Leg Limping

  • DO NOT give your dog over-the-counter medications such as Tylenol, Advil, or aspirin.
  • DO NOT try to self-diagnose. Seek medical attention. Dogs are masters of hiding their pain.
  • DO NOT make the injury worse. Use extreme caution transporting the dog to the vet or outside. A sling or a blanket is best for this situation. When our last Cocker injured her leg, we put her on a blanket and each of us held a side to get her into (and out of) the car.
anatomy of dog paw

Treatment For Dog Front Leg Injuries

Depending on the cause of lameness, treatments include everything from repair of broken bones to sutures for cuts and lacerations.

Dogs with ongoing joint disease and arthritis should begin a regular treatment plan that may include physical therapy, laser therapy, swimming, surgery, and/or nutraceuticals as discussed with the vet. A sprain or strain may require rest.

Unfortunately, there is no one size fits all when it comes to treatment for the lameness of the front leg. The old adage, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” is useful when it comes to canine leg injuries. If you know what normal is in a dog, then you’re more prepared for when abnormal happens.

I went looking for a resource to track my dog’s ongoing health records and symptoms to discuss with my vet. Since I couldn’t find a good health and wellness resource for dogs, I created one. Purchase the Dogminder on Amazon for under $10.

Things to watch for in your dog:

  • Limping after exercise
  • Limping after sleep
  • Lameness after a walk
  • Reluctance to put weight on front legs
  • Licking paws or legs
  • Pain upon rising
  • Do a paw touch and examination daily (at day’s end if possible)

I also recommend all pet parents have an emergency first aid kit on hand for any type of unexpected emergencies or situations that arise.

learn why a dog limps on his front leg

Products to Help an Injured Dog

Here are seven of our favorite products to have on hand for a dog who is limping. Once your vet has diagnosed the extent of your dog’s injury, these are the types of products to have on hand.

DogMinder: The DogMinder is a health and wellness dog journal to record and save all of your dog’s medical notes, reminders, symptoms, signs, and more. We authored this journal and it’s under $10 on Amazon.

Styptic powder to stop nail bleeding: If you nick your dog’s quick or he has bleeding from the quick, styptic powder can stop bleeding fast.

First aid kit for dogs: It’s always a great idea to have a fully-stocked dog first aid emergency kit on hand. We have a post about first aid kits for Cocker Spaniels. You can also purchase this first aid kit for dogs on Amazon.

Joint supplement for dogs: We have several joint supplement favorites for dogs, but the two we have been most helpful for our dogs are Duralactin Canine Joint Plus Soft Chew and Dasuquin with MSM. Note: You want the Duralactin soft chews and not the tablets.

Comfortable orthopedic dog bed: Most dogs love to snuggle up and rest on a dog bed. If your dog has a leg injury, a solid orthopedic memory foam dog bed can be very helpful. Our favorite is from Furhaven Pet Products.

Dog ramp: If your dog is recovering from a leg injury or surgery, he may need to use a ramp to get around for a while. With your vet’s permission and following weight-bearing instructions, consider using a durable dog ramp.

Dog harness: Help your dog get around while recovering with a high-quality body harness. We prefer Gingerlead. I’ve met the owners of the company and have used this product with success.Save

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11 Comments

  1. Bailie is finally back to normal after her rear leg limping. It turned out to be strained Sartorius and TFL muscles. 3 months of resting, stretching and 6 ultrasound treatments and she is back on the road. Leg injuries are no fun and take a lot of patience.

    1. Oh my goodness poor Bailie. You have athletic doggies and I am so sorry this happened. I am glad she is back to normal.

    2. Did you “rest” the dog by not letting he/she run around at all? Just walks on the leash for 3 months?

  2. My dog has a similar problem back then. I was very concerned and wanted to bring her to the vet. Luckily, my wife is more clear headed than me. She stopped me as she is fairly certain that it is just a muscle strain.

  3. brilliant article, thank you. Very detailed and I learned a lot. Our greyhound has a repetitive shoulder injury and I have just ticked off every symptom especially the bit about zero to match speed. We did notice he only gets it when he runs before he has had 30 mins warm up at walk speed. The consequences are rest and very gradual build up for the next 4 to 6 weeks. Thanks again

  4. my Yorkie is limping and has lost his spunk within a few days. did x-ray and blood work at vets. he’s just laying there and barely eating and drinking. Vet gave pain pills and doxycycline for possible Lyme. he’s getting worse and I think he’s dying…

    1. I would take him to the emergency vet if you think he is dying. Something bigger than the leg could be happening.

  5. We are just dealing with what is suspected to be medial shoulder instability or medial shoulder syndrome. That sucks big time. At this point, considering surgery because conservative management improved things, but after the latest setback, it seems it’s not going to restore proper full function. Poor Cookie.

    At least, it seems that one of the local hospitals around here worked out a new, less invasive and more accurate approach to fixing. it.

  6. Very informative and helpful reading for me about keeping dog pet. I really enjoy this reading. Thank you for sharing it.

  7. My dog will undergo the same surgery on his leg due to obesity, we rush him to to get surgery just like what our vet said. And now we’re preparing for the post-care. Hope everything goes well.

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