Why is My Puppy Limping? What to Do Now
Puppy lameness has many common causes. Maybe you didn’t see your pup snag its paw on something or perhaps in its youthful exuberance it twisted or turned in a way it shouldn’t have.
It could be a broken bone or a small injury like a scratch in just the right place to affect their gait. We all have soft spots for young puppies. They’re probably the only thing that melts hearts faster than an adorable full-grown pooch.
Possible injuries are a reasonable cause for worry and should be examined by a veterinarian when possible. But if you aren’t near a vet or you just need to take more immediate action, there are some things you can do to assess the situation and do what’s best for your puppy’s health.
Read on to find out what you can do to find the source and potential solutions for a limping puppy!
- Why Do Puppies Limp?
- Common Causes & Treatments for Limping Puppies
- Can I Diagnose a Puppy Limp Without a Vet?
Why Do Puppies Limp?
Much like humans, puppies limp when it hurts to walk normally. Unfortunately, they aren’t capable of reasoning to determine why they’re experiencing pain. The only recourse for young puppies and adult dogs alike is to try and keep moving anyway.
If it’s a very severe situation, the pup may well give up on moving entirely and lie around whining sadly. In that case, the vet is the only option and you should work as quickly as possible to get them medical attention.
Anyone who hikes or long walks with their dogs knows that limps can also develop suddenly and then disappear in no time at all. The pup may have a slight amount of discomfort that they can actually work through without any help.
But investigating every limp is a good policy because they could indicate a worsening condition or develop into larger problems if left untreated for too long. Don’t worry about looking like the panicky new dog parent – with puppies, it’s always better safe than sorry.
Common Causes & Treatments for Limping Puppies
While there is a multitude of possible causes for your puppy’s limp, some are more common than others. Here are some you should consider, although you’d also do well to remember that vet attention is always the best long-term treatment plan for your four-legged friend.
1. Ligament Sprain
Puppy skeletons are held together with ligaments just like ours are. Sprains injure these ligaments and prevent puppy legs from functioning as they should. Any kind of movement can produce a strain if the skeleton moves in just the right way. Falling, slipping, and jumping are the most common causes of ligament sprains.
The most common kind of sprain in puppies and older dogs is a cruciate ligament sprain. The cruciate ligament connects the knees on your puppy’s front and back legs – if you notice an abnormality in their walking where one leg is left hanging free and never touches the ground, that’s likely evidence of a cruciate ligament sprain.
Pro-tip: although your puppy has four legs, it only has two knees. They’re on the hind legs, while the knee-like joints on the front legs are more like wrists or elbows. If your puppy has cruciate ligament damage, the limp will be on the rear legs.
To know for sure if your puppy has damaged its cruciate ligament, a veterinarian will have to take some X-rays and test the injured leg’s flexion. You can still find out if it looks like the knee is the source of the pain on your own, but in terms of treatment you should carry your pup and keep weight off its injured leg until you can get it to the vet.
Cruciate ligament sprains nearly always cause osteoarthritis. A growing puppy is most likely better off than an older dog would be, but you should still ask your vet about joint supplements to help promote good joint health when your dog is older.
2. Paw Pad Injury
One of the most likely causes of sudden limping is a simple paw pad injury. Young dogs love to run and play and aren’t very likely to take any precautions before leaping onto rocks and other potentially injurious surfaces. Scratches from pointy objects and blisters from hot surfaces are very common for this reason.
Dog owners need to take action even if the paw pad injury is only superficial. Clean out the wound, apply antibacterial cream, and bandage it to prevent further damage. The paw pad will heal quicker if your puppy isn’t constantly licking their paw or trying to walk on it.
Although this can be a challenge for high-energy pups, it’s a great help to them in the end. Your dog’s paw can also crack due to environmental factors, diet, or injury. It’s more common in older dogs, but it’s still very much possible for puppies to experience this problem as well.
Dry paw pads can be treated with ointment. You should also consider changes to your puppy’s diet and ask the vet to look out for health issues like a weak liver that might also lead to cracked paws.
3. Dislocated Kneecap (Patellar Luxation)
Dog knees are very shallow, which means shifting kneecaps and kneecap dislocations are common. Puppies are particularly at risk for patellar luxation, with around 7% of them experiencing the condition.
Small dogs and toy breed puppies like Boston Terriers, Pomeranians, and miniature poodles are more likely than larger breeds to have patellar luxation, although numbers among the larger breeds have been rising in recent years.
If your puppy is having this problem, you’ll notice signs of pain or a sudden limp. In some cases, the knee cap will shift back into place and nothing else will come of it. But if the limp doesn’t disappear, you should seek veterinary care as soon as possible.
This is an orthopedic condition and as such requires orthopedic treatment. Serious cases may require surgery, especially if your puppy already suffers from issues like hip dysplasia or cruciate ligament disease.
After veterinary care, the vast majority of dogs go on to live totally happy lives. As long as you make sure your puppy is well taken care of, a luxating patella is not a major threat on its own.
4. Hypertrophic Osteodystrophy
HOD is a more specific cause for your puppy’s limp. It primarily affects large breed dogs between 2 and 8 months of age, particularly a breed called Weimaraner. This osteodystrophy (also called canine scurvy) is an auto-inflammatory joint disease at the ends of the bones that is treated with rest and anti-inflammatory drugs.
It sounds intense, but don’t worry. While you still need to seek veterinary care for your puppy, the outlook for most dogs with HOD is positive. There may be episodic relapses up until your puppy is about 20 months old, but each episode tends to last about a week and a half at most.
Corticosteroid injections may be needed in some cases, but that’s for the vet to decide. All you need to do if you notice sudden lameness or your puppy refuses to bear weight on one or more legs is get it to the vet’s office.
It’s suggested that too much calcium in your puppy’s diet is a main contributing factor to HOD, so limit calcium to prevent it from happening. Vitamin C is theorized to help prevent HOD as well.
5. Muscle Sprain/Strain
Your puppy can pull a muscle as easily as it could get a ligament sprain. The vast majority of the time, a muscle strain is a relatively simple injury that you can treat with a cold compress and anti-inflammatory medicine.
However, they can also be quite severe and require surgical treatment at their most extreme, so some vet attention is still recommended. Acute pain is more likely with muscle strains, so your puppy may whine or howl if one occurs.
Your dog’s leg might show signs of a strain, but generally speaking, it’s not an emergency in most cases. The vet will probably prescribe pain medication and recommend you keep weight off the affected leg.
If you notice your dog limping and whining at the same time, a recent muscle strain is one of the most common causes.
6. Legg-Calve-Perthes Disease
Not to alarm you, but there are a few more severe reasons your puppy is limping. One that requires surgical intervention and rehabilitation to correct is a developmental disease called Legg-Calve-Perthes, in which the femoral head at the top of your puppy’s leg bone degenerates, collapses, and then dies.
This condition can lead to arthritis. Puppies affected by LCP will have trouble doing things like walking upstairs, getting up from a lying position, walking, holding one leg up, and may favor one leg over another if the disease is unilateral.
The breeds that are most likely to suffer from LCP disease are terriers and small toy breeds such as toy poodles and miniature pinschers. While the definite cause is still being studied, researchers have guessed that it is a lack of blood flow to the femoral head.
Look for symptoms of pain around the hip joint to identify LCP disease. The only way to get a sure diagnosis is via X-ray, so veterinary care is crucial if LCP is suspected.
7. Ingrown Toenail
On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have simple causes like an ingrown toenail. Excitable and high-energy puppies who can’t sit still long enough to have their claws trimmed are the most likely to suffer from this issue.
Puppy nails also wear down through use, but pets in more urban environments who don’t get as much exercise could miss out on this and get ingrown toenails as a result. Dobermans, dachshunds, chihuahuas, and shar-peis are the breeds that most commonly suffer from ingrown toenails.
You’ll be able to tell if your puppy has one because their paw will be sensitive, swollen, discolored, and possibly even bleeding in severe cases. In addition to lameness, puppies with an ingrown toenail also tend to bite or lick at the affected paw.
Ingrown nails present a risk of infection so you should go to the vet if you find one on your puppy. Generally speaking, all you need to do to treat a simple ingrown toenail is trim it. But if it’s a recurring problem or the result of the shape of the pup’s paw, the vet may recommend localized declawing.
Sometimes your puppy’s longest leg bones can become inflamed and cause very sudden lameness that might even shift around to different parts of the leg or other legs. It’s called panosteitis, although it may also be referred to simply as growing pains.
Dog breeds that experience fast growth in their puppyhood are most likely to experience this problem. Dog owners of Great Danes, golden retrievers, Rottweilers, German Shepherds, Basset Hounds, and Doberman Pinschers should be on the lookout for developing panosteitis.
Dogs between 2 and 18 months of age will exhibit symptoms that invariably disappear when they’re about two years old. In addition to bone sensitivity and a limp, puppies experiencing panosteitis will also exhibit lethargy and may also have a fever and lose their appetites.
The vet may prescribe pain medication and anti-inflammatories to reduce pain during flare-ups. Episodes last 3 weeks maximum. During this time, you should limit the amount of exercise your puppy gets.
If the pain persists for longer than three weeks, the dog is probably suffering from a different condition altogether.
9. Lyme Disease
Spread through the bites of certain ticks, Lyme disease can be a serious problem for dogs of all ages. Lameness is one side effect of Lyme disease, but there are a few others as well. Joint swelling, stiffness, fever, loss of appetite, and lethargy are also symptoms.
If Lyme disease is allowed to progress, it can lead to life-threatening health issues such as kidney failure. Heart problems and neurological issues are also possible. Unless you see the tick on your dog, the only way to know if they’ve contracted Lyme disease is through blood tests.
Puppies found to be infected need to be treated with antibiotics for up to 30 days. Luckily, medical professionals have developed effective medicine. As long as you make sure to locate and remove the offending tick, your pup should recover from Lyme disease just fine.
The most important thing about Lyme disease is that you find it fast and get rid of that tick before it can cause an abscess or anything worse. If the disease causes any of the worst possible side effects, it could require emergency vet attention and spell a poor puppyhood for your pet.
10. Hip & Elbow Dysplasia
Large dog breeds, in particular, tend to suffer from poorly developed hip and elbow joints that cause dysplasia, which itself leads to lameness and arthritis. Puppies that are still developing are unlikely to have full-blown hip and elbow dysplasia, but the occurrence of persistent lameness could indicate that they are on course to develop it.
While a healthy diet and exercise routine are highly recommended for addressing the onset of elbow and hip dysplasia, there is no outright cure for the condition once it develops. Some research indicates glucosamine reduces symptoms of hip dysplasia, so you can invest in chewables and glucosamine-rich dog food brands to try and get ahead of the condition.
Can I Diagnose a Puppy Limp Without a Vet?
It’s up to you whether you want to risk foregoing veterinary care for your young puppy. Some of the conditions we went through in this guide, such as Lyme disease, panosteitis, LCP, and HOD definitely require vet care. Severe strains and sprains will too.
Since they can’t speak for themselves, puppies need X-rays and other professional diagnostic tools for their owners to have true peace of mind. If that’s truly not an option, there are many conditions dog owners can diagnose themselves if they notice their dogs limping.
But vet care should be a goal once it is possible to make sure a more serious condition doesn’t underlie your puppy’s limp.
Puppies limp for a variety of reasons. They could be compensating for a recent injury such as a muscle sprain or a more serious condition like panosteitis could be developing. In any case, it’s vital for dog owners to take a limp seriously.
In the best-case scenario, a sudden limp disappears on its own after a short time. But most of the time, your puppy will require some care to get over their limp. Developing puppies are especially vulnerable.
They’re clumsy and still getting used to learning how to move. Plus, developmental disorders like hip dysplasia could also be setting in. Luckily, every cause has a cure or at least some method of rectification.
Even if your puppy has some kind of dysplasia that will never truly go away completely, you can still reduce its impact so that your puppy can live its life without mobility interruptions. Keep the possible causes in this guide in mind if your puppy should develop a limp.
They’ll help identify where the problem is so you know what to do and whether your growing dog needs emergency vet care or not.