Is your dog limping? Did the limp start suddenly or has it been getting progressively worse? Dogs can sustain an acute injury such as breaking a bone or tearing a ligament. A dog who suddenly limps may also be suffering from a chronic condition like arthritis or elbow dysplasia.
Dogs don’t lie about pain. Dogs are good at hiding their pain, so if you notice your dog limping, it might be a medical emergency. Your dog’s limp could be something as easy as a torn nail or something more elusive yet scary like Lyme disease.
As a dog mom to two Cocker Spaniels with a history of leg issues, I can empathize with you. I share in that sinking feeling you get when your dog displays a hobble, paw lifting, or limp and you have no idea why.
Sometimes a dog may limp without exhibiting pain or he may howl, moan, whine, snap, or try to bite because it hurts. One time when I was transporting my Cocker Spaniel to an emergency hospital, she snapped at me in pain. She injured her leg, which was later diagnosed as patellar luxation.
You may be able to diagnose the reason for your dog’s limping if it is something simple, which we’ll discuss in this article. Never let your dog suffer in pain. Dogs can’t tell us where it hurts or what might have happened to cause the pain.
Here are the most common reasons a dog suddenly limps along with how to determine if it’s an emergency situation.
Reasons For Sudden Dog Limping
Overgrown or Injured Nails
Imagine wearing a pair of high heels if you are accustomed to flats or wearing shoes: Now try running in those heels and wearing them 24/7. This is what overgrown nails feel like on a dog.
This can also create bone and leg pain, which in the long run, causes serious issues for a dog. Make sure your dog’s nails are clipped back if necessary. A veterinary nurse or your dog’s groomer can clip his nails.
Dogs who limp may also have injured their nail. I recall taking our first Cocker Spaniel to a farm to see the animals and go for a walk. She managed to slice a paw nail on a cage, resulting in what looked like a bloody crime scene. She hit the quick of her nail, which is the part that supplies blood and runs through the middle of the nail.
A bleeding or broken toenail requires urgent care and is very common in dogs. If the quick of the nail is affected, you’ll see a lot of bleeding. Major breaks tend to be deeper and bleed more. Don’t risk infection, and take your dog to see a veterinarian immediately. The vet can check it, fix it, and prescribe antibiotics if needed to prevent infection.
Don’t try clipping your dog’s nails if you are not 100 percent certain how to do it. Here’s how I learned to clip my dog’s nails at home.
Paw Pad Injury
In hot weather, paw pads may be burned by hot pavement. In cold weather, pads can be harmed by frostbite or chemicals tossed on icy roads and sidewalks.
Excessive or frequent walking or running can also wear a paw pad down. A common myth among dog parents is that a dog’s paws need no protection; after all, they’ve been walking around without socks or shoes for thousands of years, right?
True, but a dog’s paws do need protection. If your dog suddenly limps, gently check the paws and in between the toes for any cuts, foreign objects, bleeding, chemical injuries, burns, or frostbite.
Hidden Lump In the Toes
In between each of your dog’s toes is an area of webbing. That area is also ripe for yeast to form (dark and moist), cyst or infection, or even a mass. Interdigital (between the toes) lumps and growths can form and cause a dog to limp.
If growths or interdigital cysts are an ongoing issue with your dog, get to the root of the cause. Some causes of cyst formation in the toes include bacterial infections, ingrown hairs, mites, allergies, and obesity.
Canine Thyroid Issue
Dogs with hypothyroidism (underactive) may limp due to the pain caused to the joints by the imbalance of thyroid hormone. In her book, The Canine Thyroid Epidemic, Dr. Jean Dodds explains that reduced thyroid function can produce a wide range of clinical signs.
If your dog limps and displays other hypothyroid symptoms, such as hair loss, unexplained weight gain, or skin issues, ask your veterinarian to check the dog’s thyroid hormone levels.
Although dogs may never display symptoms of Lyme disease, when symptoms do manifest, your dog might limp. Swollen, painful joints might indicate your dog has Lyme disease, which is carried by ticks.
Your dog limping may be on one leg on one day and then he may limp on the other leg later on. He may appear like he’s walking on eggshells and have a fever as well…or not. Inflammed joints as a result of Lyme disease can cause a dog to limp. Your veterinarian can run the necessary tests and prescribe appropriate treatment.
Spinal Cord or Disc Injury
IVDD, or intervertebral disc disease in dogs, affects the discs that cushion the spine: between the spinal column itself and the vertebrae.
The discs bulge or herniated (burst) into the spinal cord space. Your dog may drag his back legs, hobble when walking, seem off-balance, or refuse to walk at all.
Dog mom Kim Kiernan has managed her dog’s IVDD for years. She helps her Cocker Spaniel’s IVDD with exercise, dietary modifications, veterinary guidance, and holistic support.
Sometimes involuntary urination, leaking urine, or dribbling of urine in dogs is associated with limping. Like people, dogs develop arthritis and other orthopedic issues throughout their lives, especially as they age.
Nerves that control the bladder and its emptying can be affected by things like tumors, infections, and even spinal cord injuries.
One of the most common tears in a dog’s leg is that of the cranial cruciate ligament, CCL, sometimes called ACL. My dog tore his ACL twice, both times requiring surgery.
Many times, a veterinarian will perform an in-office “drawer test” on the dog suspected of an ACL tear. The drawer test involves manual manipulation of the knee joint by a veterinarian.
Here’s our Everything Guide to ACL Injuries that will help guide you and your dog if an ACL tear is suspected.
Other Reasons Your Dog Limps Suddenly
Sometimes, a dog limping suddenly is a simple fix and other times it’s more involved. Your dog could have:
- An insect bite
- A bee stinger or a thorn in his paw
- A foreign object or something sticky on or in his paw pad
- Vaccination reaction
- Pinched nerve or a nerve injury
- Burn or sliced paw
- Elbow dysplasia
- Hip dysplasia
- Back issue, compressed or herniated disk
- Bone tumor
- Muscle pull, tear, or muscle injury
- Joint luxation or subluxation
- Fracture or break
- Degenerative myelopathy
- Growing pains in puppies (panosteitis)
- Shoulder issue called osteochondritis dissecans
- Infection of unknown origin
- Congenital issue, such as malformation
- An immune system issue
- Valley fever
- Hypertrophic osteodystrophy (usually seen in large breed puppies)
Sometimes, the cause of your dog’s limp may never be known. In most cases, a veterinarian or specialist will be able to diagnose the cause of your dog’s limp.
Did your dog play or wrestle with another dog or you? Did he jump off the couch or the bed? Miss a step or run too fast outside? Even as something as minor as stepping off a curb can cause injury and cause your dog to limp.
In addition to determining the cause of your dog’s limp, the injury location is imperative. Is your dog limping on his front leg or is he limping on his rear leg? Is it both front legs alternating or the rear legs back and forth? Your vet will help with a diagnosis.
How To Help A Limping Dog: Bonus Tip
If your dog is anything like mine, by the time you see the veterinarian, the limp isn’t as bad or the dog isn’t limping at all. You bring the dog home and he limps again.
Document everything you can about your dog’s limp including:
- When you noticed the limp
- Anything that precipitated it
- Any medications your dog takes
- Any recent travel history including your dog
If you can videotape your dog limping, this will help the vet as well. My veterinarian allows us to text her with any ongoing issues so we can determine if an appointment is needed. You can show your vet the video of your dog limping, which can help with diagnosis and treatment.
Moving A Dog With A Limp
Sometimes a dog in pain will cry out, bite, or snap if you try to move him. However, you’ve got to get to a vet. If your dog is limping, here are some ways to transport him to your vehicle:
- Gently carry your dog outside if possible, cradling him in your arms while allowing the injured limp to rest or dangle, depending on the most comfortable position.
- Slide a heavy blanket under the dog along with a board or a piece of cardboard for support. This maneuver is best when performed by two people (unless you have a smaller dog).
- Call your vet or animal emergency clinic if you need help getting the dog to your vehicle. They will give you tips on transporting him to avoid further injury.
Should My Limping Dog See A Veterinarian?
Unless you are 100 percent certain of the cause of your dog’s limp and can successfully and easily treat it on your own, please call a vet for help.
Limping is an emergency if the dog is in extreme pain if your dog:
- Can’t weight bear at all
- Has bleeding or swelling
- Has a break or fracture (contorted limb, severe pain, etc)
- Is dragging a limb
- Has a fever, is shaking or trembling
- Experiences severe vomiting
- Has extreme fatigue
- Is fearful or aggressive
- Won’t eat or drink
- The limb is warm or hot to touch
- Your dog is showing no signs of improvement even if you think it’s minor
Never second guess or try to self-diagnose your dog. I never would have known my Cocker Spaniel had a patellar luxation without veterinary intervention.
I never would have known my dog had a torn ACL unless a vet intervened. Dogs can’t tell us where it hurts, so be the pet parent your dog knows you are. Never hesitate to seek medical help when it comes to your dog’s health.
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.