Australian shepherd dog in a field

In most cases a limp on a dog is not an emergency.

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Should I take my dog to the vet if they are limping?

By Dr Hester Mulhall MA, VetMB, MRCVS Veterinarian

Updated on the

If your dog is limping, it could be due to something as small as a stone in their paw or it could mean they've fractured their leg. 

If your dog is limping, you should book an appointment with a vet. Even if you cannot find an obvious cause for the limp, it is a sign that your pet is probably in pain and they will need a physical examination.

What should I look for if my dog is limping?

A limp can range from a subtle decrease in weight-bearing to not using the leg at all. In more severe cases, a limp will be very noticeable. Yet there are milder signs to look out for too. These include head nodding, a change in gait, stiffness after lying down, or scuffing claws due to dragging the leg slightly.

What should I do if my dog is limping?

In most cases a limp is not an emergency, but there are some exceptions. If your dog is showing any of these signs, you should contact a vet straight away:

  • Visible fracture – the leg is at a strange angle or you can visibly see bone breaking skin.
  • Dragging one or more limbs, or showing other signs of paralysis.
  • Significant swelling of the affected limb or limbs.
  • Bleeding that will not stop after five minutes of pressure with a clean dressing.
  • Indicators of severe pain, including aggression.
  • Sudden inability to stand up.

Please take care when moving your dog and lifting them into the vehicle for transport. Any dog can bite you if they are in pain, especially if they are jolted.

Taking a closer look at your limping dog yourself

If your dog has a limp but does not fall into any of the above categories, then you should try to take a closer look at the leg. Put down a towel or blanket for your dog to stand on to avoid them slipping on hard surfaces. Keep an eye on your dog for signs that they are becoming distressed, and don’t put yourself in harm’s way.

Have a look and feel for any burs, grass seeds, small stones or anything else that might have lodged between the toes or pads. These can become matted in fur between the pads and be very painful when your dog puts weight on their foot. You should be fine to remove anything you find on the surface, and this may rectify the limp. However, if it looks like the object might have broken the skin, take care, as removal can be very sore and your dog may bite. It is also worth getting a vet to check the puncture wound for signs of infection, even if you manage to remove the offending item.

You might also notice other signs such as cuts, swelling, torn toenails or skin lumps. If your dog has a surface skin graze, then you can try basic first aid. However, for anything else it is best to seek veterinary advice.

What first aid can I use for a limping dog?

Only attempt first aid if your dog will tolerate it and never put yourself at risk of getting bitten. If your dog is bleeding, you should try to apply pressure for five minutes, ideally with a clean dressing or best alternative. If bleeding does not stop, you should contact a vet as an emergency.

Superficial skin wounds that do not break the skin can be cleaned gently using salty water at a ratio of about 1 teaspoon of salt per 500ml. You can then dry the area and apply a non-medicated barrier cream that is suitable for use in dogs, to help aid the natural processes of skin healing.

Puncture wounds should not be treated at home because they are often concealing far more damage underneath the skin. These wounds can commonly have a small piece of foreign body left behind that is not visible from the skin’s surface and can lead to infection. If your dog has a larger open wound, this will also require veterinary attention.

Why is my dog limping all of a sudden?

A vet appointment, plus potential x-rays, will be needed for diagnosis in this kind of situation, as there can be many reasons for a limp. These include bone fractures, cuts, sprain or strain, joint disease, fractured claws, foreign bodies in the paw, animal bites, nerve problems, infection, immune diseases and even back problems.

How can I tell if my dog's leg is broken or sprained?

Unless you can see a visible break that has pierced the skin, your dog will need a vet to diagnose whether the leg is broken. This will require a thorough orthopaedic examination and x-rays.

Will a dog's sprained leg heal on its own?

If your dog has been diagnosed with a sprain, they will often not require medical treatment other than pain medication. However, the vet will recommend a strict protocol for resting and minimising exercise and it is very important to follow this advice. The vet may also recommend additional treatments and management plans including the use of splints to help reduce movement of the limb.

How do I know if my dog’s leg injury is serious?

If your dog is showing any signs of an emergency, then you should seek veterinary advice straight away. However, even if your dog has a subtle limp, this is often a sign that they are in pain and this could develop into something more serious over time. This means it is always best to get it checked out by a vet at an early stage.

Will a dog cry if its leg is broken?

Not necessarily, no. This is because dogs can be very good at hiding signs of pain and some fractures may not be excessively painful.

Can a vet diagnose online why my dog is limping?

You may be able to seek online first-aid advice, but proper diagnosis will require a full clinical examination, orthopaedic examination and x-rays.

When should I see a vet?

If your dog meets any of the criteria of an emergency, you should contact a vet immediately. For other cases of a limp, it is best to speak to a vet as early as possible to determine whether an appointment is necessary.

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