Canine limping (i.e., lameness) should be a straightforward problem—your dog is painful, and carries the injured leg to avoid discomfort. However, accurate diagnosis and treatment for these dogs is complex, because they have four legs, and because they instinctively conceal pain and weakness. If you’re frustrated or flummoxed by your dog’s mysterious lameness, learn more about this special challenge from the Animal Rehabilitation Center team.

I’m fine, everything is fine—your limping dog at the vet

You may recognize the following scenario—your dog has been limping around the house for several days, but the limp mysteriously disappears when you arrive at your regular veterinary hospital. Your veterinarian cannot detect any pain or discomfort in your dog, but prescribes a short course of anti-inflammatory medication. Then, as soon as the prescription has been completed, the lameness returns.

Most pets are stoic and refuse to show any pain or weakness. Originally designed for self-protection in the wild, this instinctive behavior can prevent an accurate diagnosis. And, because our patients cannot tell us where they hurt, treatment becomes a guessing game, or a matter of trial and error. 

No bones about it—dogs’ soft tissue injuries require special diagnostics

Obvious orthopedic injuries, such as bone fractures, cruciate ligament rupture, luxating patellas (i.e., floating kneecaps), and degenerative conditions such as hip dysplasia, are often detectable by examination. Significant pain, resistance, or unnatural range-of-motion in the dog tells the veterinarian everything they need to know.

However, dogs with soft tissue injuries, such as those affecting tendons, ligaments, muscles, muscle groups, and joint capsules, don’t always show noticeable changes. General practice veterinarians can detect swelling, heat, and pain, but limping dogs need rehabilitation-certified veterinarians who are highly trained to palpate, mobilize, and assess soft tissue anatomy and joint movement, for a more sensitive diagnostic assessment.

Balancing act—dogs can shift their weight and adapt to injury

Because dogs are four-legged, when one leg is injured they can easily—often unnoticeably—redistribute their body weight to the remaining three limbs. Over time, some limping dogs will seem to have improved or healed, but they have actually adapted their gait and learned to stand and move differently, to limit their pain.

These dogs may limp only intermittently or after activity and owners may not seek treatment, because the problem seems to disappear. Unfortunately, like humans, compensatory injuries and imbalances bring their own problems, including strains, muscle shortening, and muscle atrophy.

You’re getting warmer—referred pain in dogs

Sometimes, lameness has little to do with the actual leg, because an injury in a nearby body part or region can cause weight-bearing lameness or leg-favoring. Also, an injury or changes to the nerves entering the leg can cause referred pain, making the injury neurologic (i.e., related to the spinal cord or nerves) rather than orthopedic. Neck pain and back pain, which may be caused by intervertebral disc injury or herniation, can both present as lameness.

Iliopsoas strain is another non-orthopedic cause for an altered gait. The iliopsoas is a muscle on either side of the dog that originates on the underside of the lumbar spine and attaches to the pelvis. This groin muscle is a common injury site, including tears, strains, and rupture, especially in active or competitive sporting dogs. Iliopsoas injuries can present with one-sided lameness, or significant gait abnormalities if both sides are affected.

Lame dogs, cool tech—veterinary diagnostics for limping dogs

Diagnosing an atypical canine lameness requires specialized knowledge, advanced palpation skills, and specific diagnostic equipment. At the Animal Rehabilitation Center, we offer a comprehensive canine lameness workup and, depending on your dog’s history, presentation, and examination findings, our veterinarians may recommend advanced imaging or testing.

Assessment tools include:

  • Complete exam — A full hands-on examination allows evaluation of your dog’s orthopedic, musculoskeletal, and basic neurological function.
  • Gait analysis — When walking and trotting, dogs are less able to hide imbalance, weakness, and injury.
  • Stance analysis — Your dog’s stance can indicate where they shift their weight, and how they compensate.
  • Measurements — Your dog’s muscle mass and joint range of motion can show atrophy and restriction.
  • X-rays — Radiographic images can provide detailed information about bone health, and joint integrity, and diagnose most orthopedic injuries.
  • Musculoskeletal ultrasound — Ultrasound waves can visualize muscles, ligaments, and tendons in real-time, and provide a detailed, dynamic view of lesions, tissue architecture changes, and inflammation.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) — If necessary, an MRI scan can evaluate your dog’s brain, spinal cord, and various soft tissue structures.

Getting back on their paws—treatment options for canine lameness

Treating lameness in dogs greatly depends on the cause. Once the Animal Rehabilitation Center’s expert team determines your dog’s diagnosis, we will present you with a customized treatment plan. With our range of therapeutic modalities, most treatments can be conveniently performed in-house, and may include:

So, why is figuring out why your dog is limping so difficult? The answer—because you haven’t yet visited the Animal Rehabilitation Center. Contact us to schedule your dog’s lameness evaluation.