When your dog has a sudden, painful limp, it can be a cause for concern. But what does it mean when your dog is limping without pain? Are they truly injured, are they actually painful, and what can cause it? Learn more about what it means when you see your dog limping and how you can help them feel better faster.
What Is Limping?
A limp occurs when there is a change in your dog’s gait or ability to walk. It can also change their ability to bear weight on one or more limbs. Gait changes may look as if your dog is hobbling or hopping rather than walking. They may also hunch their abdomen, tuck their tail, or hold their head in a strange position to help maintain balance.
Non-weight-bearing limps are easier to spot, as your dog will attempt to hold one limb in the air. This may occur only when they are walking, or when they are standing still. Your dog may try to alternate between keeping their affected limbs in the air. They may also hobble or wince when attempting to walk. Severe limps may also lead to your dog becoming lethargic or reluctant to move from a laying or sitting position.
Causes of Your Dog Limping Without Pain
Here are some of the most common causes that may lead to a dog limping without visible pain:
Soft Tissue Injury
While soft tissue injuries can often present with pain, it may not always be present. Instead, looking for other symptoms of soft tissue injuries can alert you to an issue. Your dog may be non-weight-bearing, limp, or have a change of gait. The affected limb may also have swelling over the shoulder, elbow, ankle, toes (paws), or surrounding tissues. You may also spot minor dislocations with a soft tissue injury. Signs include the leg bending at a slightly wrong angle or looking out of place during movement.
If you suspect an injury it is best to place your dog on strict kennel rest until seen by a veterinarian. This can help prevent further damage, reduce swelling, and reduce any pain — even if your dog does not seem painful. At the vet, they will carefully perform a physical examination. The vet may recommend X-rays to rule out joint or bone injuries, look for dislocations, and spot large tissue tears.
Treatment depends on the severity of the injury. For minor injuries, strict kennel rest with leashed walks only, pain meds, or anti-inflammatory medication can all help. For more severe injuries, additional testing with an orthopedic specialist or surgical correction (such as with torn knee or elbow ligaments) may be needed. Recovery is generally the same, but can include physical therapy to help restabilize the limb. While it is impossible to prevent a soft tissue injury, keeping an eye out for slippery or uneven surfaces can prevent a fall or accident.
Bone and Joint Injury
Similar to soft tissue injuries, joint and bone injuries can present with general symptoms such as swelling, limping, and changes in gait. Severely broken bones may also appear as large bumps under the skin, or may completely break through the skin and be visible. Joint injuries may also cause more subtle symptoms. These include stiffness when getting up from a sitting or lying position, reluctance to move, or a decrease in normal activity.
Physical examination and X-rays are the best way to diagnose an issue. Depending on the cause, treatment can vary. Treatments such as splinting the injury, surgical repair, or amputation are recommended for broken bones. In addition, pain meds or anti-inflammatory meds can help with healing. For joint injuries, kennel rest, pain or anti-inflammatory medications, and joint supplements can help. For more severe joint problems, such as luxating patellas, elbows, or hips, surgical stabilization can help.
Recovery can take a few weeks to a few months depending on the severity of the injury. Additional kennel rest or physical therapy may be beneficial for helping the affected limb recover. As with soft tissue injuries, prevention can be difficult. However, in the case of congenital joint issues, careful testing before breeding and removing affected animals from the breeding pool can prevent passing on these issues.
Congenital deformities are those that are there from birth. They can be due to genetic issues or problems during development in the womb. In most cases, a congenital deformity is apparent from birth. It may also become more apparent as a puppy learns to walk and move around. You may notice your puppy limps on one limb or has a limb that is shorter or crooked compared to others.
If you notice a deformity, a trip to your vet is best. They will recommend X-rays to check for any abnormalities of the bones and joints. Depending on the cause of the limp, treatment may or may not be needed. If your puppy can move around without pain and it is not causing any issues such as pinching nerves, cutting off blood supply, etc, your vet may recommend monitoring the issue. If the limb deformity is causing problems, splinting and physical therapy may help straighten a limb. Surgical repair or amputation may also be recommended.
Hip and Elbow Dysplasia
Hip and elbow dysplasias are a more specific form of congenital abnormality in dogs. Abnormal development of the joints that hold the elbow and hips in place leads to issues such as luxation, joint degeneration, deformity, and over time limping. In its early stages, there may be no symptoms present. Or, you may only notice a slight limp or luxation of the joint. As the disease progresses, it can lead to more severe limping, inability to walk, and potential pain.
Dysplasias are usually diagnosed via an X-ray of the joints. Your vet will sedate your dog to be able to move the joints into a specific 90-degree position that is used to determine if dysplasia is present. This procedure is also done when certifying joints as dysplasia-free for breeding programs. Hip and elbow dysplasias are genetic, and many breeds are predisposed such as Golden Retrievers, Labrador Retrievers, and German Shepherds.
If a dog is diagnosed with hip or elbow dysplasia, there is no cure. The best course of action is preventive care of the joints. Supplements, regular monitoring, physical therapy, and keeping your dog at a healthy weight can all help. Dogs with dysplasia should also be spayed or neutered to prevent passing the condition onto their puppies.
Patellar luxation most often affects smaller breed dogs. Similar to hip and elbow dysplasia, a structural issue in the knees causes the patella bone to slip out of place. This luxation can lead to a limp, visible deformity, and eventually pain. The breeds most commonly affected include Miniature Poodles, Yorkshire Terriers, Chihuahuas, French Bulldogs, and Pugs, though any breed small or large can have this issue.
Patellar luxation usually only affects one knee. However, it can affect both at once or lead to the luxation switching between limbs as your dog tries to compensate for the injury in less common cases. Your dog may also hunch or crouch, have an abnormal gait, or look as if they’re skipping. Like hip and elbow dysplasia, this condition is diagnosed via X-ray and physical exam. Your vet will also grade the severity of the luxation from I to IV, with IV being the worst.
A grade I luxation can be manually luxated by moving the joints around, but will return to normal after. A grade IV luxation will move on its own without manipulation, and will not return to normal after. Depending on the severity of the luxation, treatment will vary. For less severe issues, your vet may recommend monitoring and regularly rechecking the joint for any changes. For more severe luxations, a variety of surgical procedures can be done to repair the joint, loosen or tighten surrounding ligaments, or help stabilize the limb.
Nerve Damage/Pinched Nerves
Damage to the nervous system in the brain, spine, or the various nerves that run along the body can lead to limping. Depending on the cause of the issue, your dog’s limping can also present differently. Damage to the brain may cause whole-body issues. These include strange gaits, problems with all four limbs, or loss of balance. Issues with the spine may affect only the front or hind legs, leading to hopping gaits, hobbling, or paralysis. Damage to individual limbs may present with your dog refusing to bear weight, dragging the limb, or being unable to bend it.
A thorough examination, including X-rays, neurologic testing, reflex testing, and more can be used to determine if there is an issue with the nerves. Injuries such as falling, twisting, or trauma, illnesses affecting the nerves, and some underlying health conditions can all cause nerve damage. Inflammation can also lead to pinching of the nerves.
Treatment depends on the underlying condition. Treating any underlying illnesses can help reduce inflammation and allow the nerves to return to normal. Medications such as steroids like prednisone, NSAIDs like Rimadyl, or pain medications like gabapentin can also help. In the case of nerve damage, prognosis depends on severity. In less severe cases, nerves can repair themselves over time. However, this is often only in small sections and usually will not return to normal after more than a year. For permanent paralysis, physical therapy or assistive aids like doggie wheelchairs may help recover mobility. In the case of severe damage such as spinal cord trauma, humane euthanasia may be recommended.
Tick Bite Paralysis
An acute illness caused by a reaction to the bites of certain ticks, Tick Bite Paralysis can cause partial to full-body paralysis in dogs. This can present in minor cases as unilateral loss of function of the limbs, leading to a limp, dragging of the limb, and other gait changes. In more severe cases, whole-body paralysis can occur. Other issues, such as organ and respiratory dysfunction can also occur. This reaction often occurs within days of a bite, and can rapidly worsen over 3-5 days if no treatment is given.
Immediate veterinary care is best. Your vet will take a history to see if your dog has been in a wooded or brush-filled area recently. They will also check the body for signs of ticks or tick bites. In addition, your vet will likely recommend bloodwork or X-rays to rule out other issues such as underlying health conditions or traumatic injuries.
From there, supportive care such as feeding tubes, urinary catheters, IV fluids, oxygen, and more can be given. If any ticks are found on the body, they should also be removed ASAP. This can help reduce symptom severity and improve recovery. Tick antiserum (TAS) can also be given to reduce symptoms. Prognosis greatly depends on how quickly treatments begin and the supportive care needed. However, most dogs will recover with treatment. Regular application of flea and tick medications and monitoring of ticks on the body can help prevent this disease.
Calcium, phosphorus, Vitamin D, and other nutrients are needed to maintain good joint and bone health. Nutritional deficiencies can lead to the body leeching these nutrients from the bones. This leads to injuries such as breaks, sprains, and general limping. Other underlying illnesses, such as hyperparathyroidism, hypoparathyroidism, and kidney disease can also lead to nutrient imbalances that lead to destruction of the bones, as well as causing split paw pads or nails. You may notice visible deformities of the limbs, changes in gait, limping, weight loss, lethargy, and other signs.
Physical examination along with X-rays and complete blood work are best. These help determine the health of the joints and bones and look for any underlying conditions such as kidney disease. From there, treating the underlying health issues, supplementing the diet with needed nutrients, and feeding a balanced diet can help reverse the issue.
Even if your dog is not actively yelping or wincing in pain, any limp should still be examined by your veterinarian. High pain tolerance, minor injuries, and other underlying conditions can all lead to a dog limping without pain. However, with the right diagnosis, treatment, and kennel rest, you can help your dog recover more quickly.