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It can be scary when your dog all of a sudden is painful in one of their legs. Not only scary, but confusing and frustrating when sometimes it seems nothing happened to cause any pain or problems. There are many reasons why a dog may limp or favor one of their legs and we’ll talk about what some of the most common causes are and when they should be seen by their veterinarian.
“There’s something stuck in his paw!”
This is one of the most common complaints we hear, but almost never is there actually something stuck in their foot. A dog will limp or favor one of his legs if he has pain anywhere in the leg, from the toes all the way up to the hip, and sometimes even in the spine. It’s always good to check the paw pads and in between the toes, though, to make sure there’s nothing there! You may even find something abnormal with the paw pad that may be causing the problem.
Sprains and Strains
Sprains and strains are fairly common, especially if your dog likes to play rough and run around. Sprains and strains will usually improve with a couple of days’ rest and do not always require a visit to the veterinarian’s office. If you suspect a sprain or strain, however, and your dog isn’t improving with rest, they should be seen by their vet to make sure it’s not something that needs treatment.
There are many joint problems that can be painful for dogs. Of course, many older, especially medium to large breed dogs can suffer from arthritis. These dogs may start slowing down and have some difficulty sitting down or when trying to stand up. They also may be worse in the colder months or in the mornings.
Smaller dogs can often have knee caps that pop in and out of place (“luxating patellas”). They will walk normally most of the time and then when they are going up or down stairs or running/walking fast they will do a hop-skip and hold up one of their back legs. They usually won’t cry out or be painful unless the knee gets so out of place they can’t correct it on their own. Unless the knee popping out of place causes them pain, no treatment is usually necessary.
Other, though less common joint problems include shoulder, elbow, and hip luxations (popping out of place). These usually require sedation and/or surgery to put it back in place.
Until Proven Otherwise……
If your dog is favoring one of his back legs and he is a medium to large breed dog, the most common cause for lameness would be a torn ligament in his knee. In veterinary school we are always told by the specialists, that “it is a torn cranial cruciate ligament until proven otherwise”. The cranial cruciate ligament (ACL, or “anterior cruciate ligament” in people) is one of the ligaments in the knee joint that helps maintain stability in the back leg. When a dog tears his cruciate ligament, the most common complaint is that he had just gone outside to use the bathroom and came back in limping. Sometimes it’s after they jumped out of the car or they were playing and then all of a sudden started limping.
With a torn cruciate ligament, a couple of days’ rest will not help. They will still be favoring their leg and will often sit down with the knee turned out sideways. If you try to push on their leg to see where it hurts, they usually won’t yelp out or react. The reason for this is because the leg will only hurt if they try to put their foot down to walk on it since the ligament helps keep the bones above and below the knee in the correct position for walking.
Dogs with a cruciate tear will need to be seen by their veterinarian. Most dogs need to have surgery to help stabilize the knee joint again and to address any other complications, such as a torn meniscus. However, other dogs can do okay with pain medication, physical therapy, rest, and time. It will take them at least 6-8 weeks to walk more normally and they will have arthritis develop in the affected knee.
Could it be a fracture???
It very well could be a fracture if it’s a puppy, as their bones are very frail and it’s easy for them to get injured and break a leg or toe. If it’s not a puppy, fractures are less common, but can happen if there is a traumatic episode, their foot gets stuck in something and they struggle to get it out, or if they get hit by a car. Sometimes a fracture can also happen if they have a cancerous process in their leg, which makes the bone weak. Occasionally this is how a cancer is initially diagnosed.
Dogs with suspected fractured bones will need to be seen by their veterinarian to have an x-ray done in order to determine the best way to stabilize the leg for it to heal appropriately.
Infections, sore paw pads, other concerns…
Sometimes dogs can get infections that affect their legs, have painful inflammatory conditions affecting their paw pads, or have bone cancer in their leg. If cancer is suspected (most common in middle aged to older large breed dogs), x-rays will need to be done. These can all be very painful conditions and your dog will need to be on a variety of pain medication while the diagnoses are being confirmed.
What if my dog doesn’t seem to be in any pain?
Generally speaking, if a dog is not putting weight on one of his legs it’s because that leg hurts when he touches it to the ground or bears weight on it. So, if you are not sure what the cause is, go ahead and take them in for a check-up so a diagnosis can be made and they can have some pain relief… and so you can have some worry relief as well!