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Why Is My Dog Limping On The Front Leg

There is never a dull moment in my life. I recently had the displeasure of answering the question, “Why is my dog limping on the front leg.” Fireworks is the exact answer, but a soft tissue injury was the official diagnosis.

You’ve likely arrived at this article because your dog is limping on one or both of his front paws, his front leg is being held in the air, and/or he is showing some sort of sign of leg, elbow, or front paw injury. In our case, our Cocker Spaniel was napping on Labor Day when an unexpected fireworks ruckus took place. His front legs were nestled underneath his chest, and when he leaped from the chair, he hurt himself.


He never made a peep or cried out in pain, but I knew something was wrong. When he tried to walk, his front leg paw was airborne. This was around midnight, so we had to decide whether to rush to the emergency vet or not. Nothing ‘appeared’ broken and he showed no signs of pain. He was able to walk on three legs, but we knew something was wrong. If he wasn’t better by morning, we were going to the emergency clinic. My dog has had rear leg surgeries in the past to repair both of his ACL (CCL) ligaments, so I would not take any chances.

Morning came and the dog was still limping, not putting pressure on the leg, and so off to the emergency vet. I’ll reveal his diagnosis at the end, but for now, here’s what you came for: reasons why dogs limp on a front leg.

learn why a dog limps on his front leg

Paw Problems

Paw pads are tough but can suffer damage. From a purely anatomic perspective, a dog’s paw is quite extraordinary. When we walk, as human beings, our heels and balls of our feet take a lot of weight. However, dogs are digitigrade in nature. The dog’s digits, aka toes, take the brunt of the pressure and weight when they walk. Imagine how painful a broken toe or bone abnormality in the foot is to a dog!

dog limping front leg

Toes and bones aside, if a dog limps on his front leg (or rear, for that matter), it can also be due to:

  • Lacerations, cuts and tears
  • Broken or torn nails
  • Bee sting or bug bite
  • Overgrown nails
  • Weather-related injury: Hot pavement or ice/snowballing
  • Yeast or bacterial overgrowth

What To Do: Here are a few things you can do to treat dog paw problems and what to watch for at home. If your dog is having a serious issue, don’t wait: Seek medical care.

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Here are a few things we have in our dog supply closet in the event of a paw issue and to maintain overall paw and pad health:

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 join 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 from an awkward position, and landed weird.

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 observant and get him help. The area can also swell and his neck range of motion may be limited. Only once the veterinarian on call 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 tendonopathy, 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.

What To Do: Seek veterinary care, as with any ongoing front leg limp or lameness. If there are no breaks or severe tears, rest is generally indicated. X-rays are often used. In our case, Dexter was given a 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 CBD capsule I had on hand. 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

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.

Dog front paw limping

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.

There is much controversy around the Lyme disease vaccine, especially in areas where Lyme is prevalent. Here in the northeastern part of the country, I go for the due diligence and prevention route with the vaccine. Lyme disease is a year-round threat. In a report filed with CBS News, Dr. Joe Bloom, a veterinarian, shared, “All you need is one warm day and the ticks are out. And a lot of people got infected this February, as well as dogs, because we had a lot of warm days.”

We treat our dog non-chemically and we also treat our yard in the same non-chemical way with products from Wondercide and Only Natural Pet. Here’s what we use:

Other Front Leg Limping Issues

More common reasons for a dog to show signs of front leg limping or lameness include the obvious such as fracture, burn, sprain, strain, arthritis, ligament or tendon damage.

Spinal disease and disk damage can affect gait and produce a limp. Cancer of a bone, joint, muscle, nerve, or any other area of the body can also instigate a limp.

Arthritis is a huge reason why dogs limp or show signs of slowing and pain. Here’s a great guide for dog parents to help slow down arthritis in dogs. There are so many options available now to help your dog stay comfortable without the use of NSAIDs or surgery. If your dog is overweight and suffering from arthritis, taking the pounds off safely is in his best interest.

Dogs have elbows, and as such those elbows may be affected with calluses, which can cause pain and are unsightly. They form from repeated pressure on the area. Larger dogs are more prone, but you will find calluses on any size dog. Certain products may soften them, but calluses that cause ongoing pain can be surgically removed.

Pockets of fluid may form in an elbow callus (or any callus located on the dog’s body). When this happens, a hygroma is formed. It is a pocket of fluid and may or may not have to be removed.

Over at petMD, they outline a whole litany of reasons for lameness, limping, and gait disturbance in a dog.

Here are a few products to help a dog with skin calluses:

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.

dog walking limping front leg

Don’t Stop Now

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  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.

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