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As one of the most common conditions in dogs, limping can be alarming for pet parents; no one wants to witness their best friend in pain. Whether you describe it as hobbling, hopping, or staggering, limping means your dog is hurt and needs veterinary care.

Why is my Dog Limping?

Limping or lameness can be caused by injury or illness. Your vet will consider your pup’s age, health history, and the circumstances surrounding the limp (e.g., if your dog spontaneously started limping versus a moment of clumsiness during a game of fetch) before performing diagnostic tests. Possible causes include:

  • Trauma and exertion. Everything from broken bones, sprains, a torn ACL, to muscle pulls can cause dog limping. Paw problems, such as cuts, scrapes, and ingrown toenails, can also cause limping.
  • Congenital or inherited diseases. Hip and elbow dysplasia and intervertebral disc disease are congenital diseases that can cause lameness. (Pro-tip: signing up for dog insurance when your pet is still a healthy puppy can help pay for the expensive therapies needed to treat congenital diseases, should they ever arise.)
  • Joint inflammation. Osteoarthritis can cause lameness because of painful joint inflammation. The hips are commonly affected.
  • Infectious diseases and outside factors. Lyme disease can cause lameness in dogs; this lameness is commonly known as “shifting-leg lameness” because the lameness can switch to other legs. Ehrlichiosis is a tick-borne disease spread by the brown dog tick that can cause lameness. Infected wounds or insect bites can also cause limping due to swelling and pain.
  • Cancers. Any cancer that occurs in limbs (e.g., osteosarcoma) and paws (e.g., digital squamous cell carcinoma) can cause dog limping as tumors of the bones, joints, and muscles will affect movement and overall health.

Treating A Limping Dog

After a physical exam, a vet will run further tests that can be as extensive as in human medicine: it is not uncommon for pets to have x-rays, CT scans, and MRIs for broken bones, torn ligaments, and suspected diseases. Bloodwork is needed to diagnose tick-borne diseases. Diagnosis can be expensive: out of the roughly 6,000 claims Healthy Paws saw last year for limping pups, x-rays ran up to $400, while CT Scans and MRIs can be very expensive – costing pet parents around $3,000 – $4,500.

Although the specific treatment plan will depend on the underlying cause, whether that is accident or illness, pain medication is often prescribed to help a dog feel more comfortable. For serious cases of limping, surgery and rehabilitation, such as physical therapy and acupuncture, are recommended. Tick-borne diseases are typically treated with medication, including antibiotics. The Healthy Paws plan covers prescriptions as well as surgeries and alternative therapies (exclusions apply); our Cost of Pet Care report estimates that diagnosis and treatment for limping could total in the low thousands. Post-deductible and depending on your reimbursement level, however, you could pay only a percentage of that vet bill.

As your pet heals, you’ll be tasked with keeping her from rough-housing (running and jumping can injure your pup further), administering medications, and monitoring her symptoms. It’s not easy, but at least you’ll have a cuddly couch potato for movie nights and, with pet insurance, your wallet won’t need recuperation too.

The content is not intended to be a substitute for professional veterinarian advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your veterinarian or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical diagnosis, condition, or treatment options.