Your dog has been happily running and playing outside and suddenly appears at the door holding up her leg and whimpering. Or, your cat walks with a hop every so often as he strolls across the living room toward his favorite sunny spot.

In either scenario and so many others, pet owners often wonder if their pet’s limping or lameness is cause for an emergency visit to the veterinarian. Limping is a common (but not normal) condition in pets, and any kind of lameness means there is either an injury or an illness. Taking action is essential, but how quickly you do, depends on the circumstances, timing, and underlying lameness conditions.

Why Is My Pet Limping?

In dogs and cats, limping is a sign of pain and occurs in one of two ways: gradually or suddenly. Sometimes you can easily find the reason for the lameness, such as a stone between your pet’s toes, and resolve the issue at home. Other circumstances may require visiting your primary veterinarian or, more rarely, an animal emergency hospital like The COVE.

Some common reasons for lameness are:

  • Something stuck in the paw
  • Osteoarthritis
  • An insect bite/sting,or a snake bite
  • Muscle, ligament, or tendon strain or tear
  • A broken bone
  • Infectious disease (such as tick-borne illness)
  • Inflammatory conditions

There are two kinds of limping in pets: gradual onset, which develops over time, or sudden onset, which usually happens due to trauma or injury. In most cases, your pet should be seen more immediately if there is a sudden onset of lameness.

Gradual Onset Lameness

Joint disease is often the culprit if you notice an adult pet gradually developing a limp. Just as in people, normal wear and tear on the joints and ligaments can lead to musculoskeletal strain and the lameness you begin to notice over time. Hip dysplasia, patellar luxation, cranial cruciate ligament disease, and osteoarthritis of any joint are some of the most common joint diseases we see in pets, all of which can cause lameness, difficulty getting up, and stiffness. You can see lameness in spinal disease as well. If you notice a gradual lameness in your pet, your primary veterinarian may refer you to our Surgery service, led by board-certified veterinary surgeon Dr. Jeff T. Stallings, who can evaluate your pet, make a definitive diagnosis, and recommend an appropriate surgical solution when indicated.

Sudden Onset Lameness

As is often the case with our beloved pets, injuries and illnesses tend to happen at the most inopportune times, usually on a holiday, weekend, at night, or another time when your primary veterinarian is unavailable. If your pet is suddenly lame due to strenuous exercise or a slip and fall, try and assess the injury to check for cuts, bruises, tender spots, swelling, and heat.

If you notice swelling or heat, call us for advice. You may be able to ice the area and rest your pet at home until you can have them seen by their primary veterinarian. While it is not always necessary to see a veterinarian immediately for lameness, if there are additional symptoms or concurrent injuries, we may advise you to seek urgent care.

Additional symptoms may include:

  • Whimpering or whining in pain
  • Sudden inability to move or get up
  • Trauma, such as a broken bone (leg will often be at an awkward angle)
  • Non-weight bearing on an injured limb (pet will hold the leg up and not place any weight on it)
  • Bleeding
  • Sudden swelling, both mild or severe
  • Other signs of significant illness, such as vomiting or lethargy

Remember, it’s always better to err on the side of caution, so if you’re not sure if your dog’s condition requires emergency care, call a veterinarian for advice. If your pet has experienced vehicular trauma, it’s always best to have them evaluated as soon as possible. If it’s after your primary veterinarian’s normal business hours, we recommend contacting a telemedicine service like Vetster, which offers 24/7 consultations from the comfort of your own home. It could help you avoid a visit to the ER, or they can direct you on when it’s time to call The COVE about bringing your pet in.

Please understand that if you do visit, depending on the patients we are already treating, you may be asked to wait. We must always prioritize the most urgent cases first, including those who arrive after you do.

Seeing your dog limping can be scary, but depending on the cause, it isn’t always an emergency. If you have any questions, we’re just a phone call away at (757) 935-9111, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

About Us

The COVE’s veterinarians and staff wholeheartedly embrace the core values of community, collaboration, commitment, compassion, and integrity. This focus ensures that pets, the people who love them, and their primary care veterinarians have as positive and affirming a healthcare experience as possible, regardless of the circumstances that bring us all together.