A Pet Owner’s Guide to Limping and Joint Pain in Dogs: The Most Common Causes

When you love a dog as much as we love our pets, you notice even the subtlest change in their behavior. And when your dog suddenly finds it painful to move from lying down to standing up or vice versa, a slight furrowing of your brow and some noticeable concern is inevitable. Even though joint pain and limping are common signs of disease in dogs, they don’t always indicate something serious. A change in mobility can also be a response to irritation or some other mild discomfort. In any case, when your dog begins to show signs of joint pain or difficulty moving, you must take action quickly. In this post, we will explore some of the most common reasons for limping and joint pain in dogs and offer some helpful tips on how you can help ease their symptoms.



Soft Tissue Injury

Often, when dogs begin to limp, a soft tissue injury is the cause. This type of injury is an inflammatory condition that can occur in any muscle or tendon in the body. These injuries are always acute meaning that they have a sudden onset. When a dog limps due to a soft tissue injury, the cause is usually overuse of a particular muscle or tendon. Causes can range from roughhousing at the dog park to a strenuous hike to landing wrong when jumping off the couch. The best way to treat a soft tissue injury like this is to rest the body part that’s affected which is easier said than done sometimes! It’s best to use a crate or confine your pet to a small room without furniture to jump on when you can’t be monitoring them. It’s very important to avoid any high-impact play for a few days – No running, jumping, stairs, fetch or roughhousing with other family members. Many dogs enjoy the use of hot and cold compresses to ease muscle pain just like we do. Most soft tissue injuries will self resolve in a few days. If your dog is still limping after 3-4 days, is getting worse instead of better or won’t put any weight on his leg it’s important to see your veterinarian.

Arthritis and Dysplasia

Arthritis (or Osteoarthritis) is a condition in which the joint cartilage (the soft tissue that cushions and connects joints) becomes worn away. It affects millions of dogs every year and is most common in older canines. Arthritis can occur on any joint in the body and is often seen in the hips, knees, elbows, and shoulders. Even the spine can be affected by arthritis causing the neck and back to be stiff and painful. If you notice that your dog has begun to have a consistent limp in the same leg or has a hard time getting up after sleeping it’s important to have him examined by a veterinarian to rule out arthritis as a cause. Arthritic joints often feel worst right after rest and during cold weather so light exercise is still recommended.


While arthritis is most common in older dogs, young dogs can suffer from congenital joint dysplasia which left untreated leads to arthritis. Signs of hip dysplasia can be seen in puppies as young as 6 months and the most reported signs are pain after exercise, a “bunny hop” gait when running and a reluctance to stand up or jump. Large breeds tend to be the most susceptible to hip dysplasia with Retrievers, Shepherds, Rottweilers and St. Bernards being overrepresented. Hip dysplasia is hereditary meaning that it has a genetic component and parents can pass the defect on to their puppies. Dogs need to undergo genetic testing, an exam, and x-rays before being bred. You can read more about being a responsible breeder and necessary testing at OFA.org.

Torn Cartilage or Ligament

The cartilage and ligaments that hold joints together can become overstretched or torn from strain or injury. When this happens, the joint is no longer held together as tightly as it should be and the bones become unstable. This can cause the joint to become swollen and painful. Torn cartilage or ligaments can occur in any joint in the body, including the hips, elbows, knees, and shoulders.


I bet you’ve heard of an athlete needing surgery for a torn ACL (Anterior Cruciate Ligament). Unfortunately dogs often tear the same ligament called the CCL (Cranial Cruciate Ligament). If your dog suddenly will not bear weight on one of his hind legs a torn CCL will be high on his vet’s list of concerns. Some partial and even complete CCL tears can be healed by using a fitted brace, seeking laser therapy or acupuncture treatments, feeding high quality joint supplements, and instituting strict rest for several weeks. Follow this link for a list of my favorite joint supplements.


Medial Luxating Patella

The patella or knee cap sits in a grove on the top of the femur and it slides up and down as the knee joint is flexed and extended. Medial Patella Luxation (MPL) occurs when the patella comes out of the grove and moves to the inside of the knee. This often causes a brief moment of pain as the patella moves out of place but resolves once it slides back into the grove. Small breed dogs are prone to MPL because their patella ligaments are often more loose and the grove in the femur is more shallow. Bulldogs can also develop MPL due to their bow legged stance. MPL is graded on a scale of 1-4. Grades 1 and 2 are considered mild and often do not require treatment unless there is consistent pain. In grade 3, the kneecap sits noticeably off the joint in an incorrect anatomical position. In grade 4, the kneecap is completely out of the joint and it cannot be moved into proper position, which is a very serious condition and is often corrected with surgery.


Medial patella luxation is often treated with physical therapy, which focuses on strengthening the muscles around the knee to prevent the kneecap from sliding out of place. In some cases, a dog may need to wear a padded brace to keep the kneecap in place. It’s important to seek intervention early so that long term pain and surgery can be avoided.


Broken Bone (Fracture) or Dislocation

Dogs can break bones or sustain fractures whenever they are involved in an accident. Even if your dog wasn’t in a car accident, they can still break a limb by jumping off a couch, running into a door, or getting into a scuffle with another dog. Some fractures result in a complete, dislocated fracture meaning that the break is all the way through the bone and the edges are no longer touching. Other fractures are more subtle and may be much less obvious without x-rays. In most cases, a dog with a fractured leg will not bear any weight on the leg and will choose to walk on 3 legs. If you suspect that your dog has a fractured leg they should see a vet ASAP. You should never attempt to splint a leg at home as improper bandaging can lead to pressure sores and infection.


Trauma can also cause bones to dislocate at the joint. Dislocations are the easiest to treat immediately after they occur. The longer a joint remains out of place, the more the muscles will tighten and the less likely it is that the bone will be able to be repositioned correctly. Dislocations are very painful and full anesthesia is often necessary to facilitate relocation.


Cancer (Osteosarcoma)

Osteosarcoma is a bone tumor that can cause your dog to suddenly begin limping and experience pain. Osteosarcoma can occur in any bone, but it usually affects the long bones of the legs. Unfortunately, osteosarcoma can affect dogs as young as a few years old. You may be able to feel and see the bony tumor along the leg. Osteosarcoma caused the bone to become “moth eaten” and weak which means it’s at a higher risk of fracture. Osteosarcoma is generally very painful and the prognosis is grave. Amputation of the limb can help alleviate pain, but it is not a cure because metastasis (spread) of the cancer to other regions of the body is common.



Tick Disease

Dog owners living in areas with high tick populations should be aware that ticks can transmit a rare but serious disease called Lyme disease. Ticks can latch on to any part of the dog’s body. Even if you check your dog for ticks daily, you will likely miss some of the nymph stage because they are very small. If a tick is left to feed for too long, it can transmit harmful bacteria. Lyme disease can cause lethargy, fever, decreased appetite, and lameness. This lameness will often move to different legs and joints which is called “shifting leg lameness.” Not all dogs who are exposed to Lyme disease develop symptoms so proper testing is needed to determine if treatment is recommended.



Wounds, Broken Nails, Foxtails

Joint pain and limping can also be caused by an injury to the foot. Wounds, broken nails, and foxtails lodged inbetween the toes can all cause pain and make it difficult to move. If you notice your dog has been chewing at the paw you should inspect it closely for wounds, redness, or swelling.


Foxtails are especially dangerous to dogs, and owners should be on the lookout for these prickly weeds. When lodged between the toes they often cause a round swelling filled with fluid. You can soak your dogs paw in a warm epsom salt bath to soften the swelling and gently search the area for signs of plant material. Unfortunately, probing the foot with special equipment at the vet is often necessary. You should not allow your dog to lick the area as this can make infection worse.


Small cuts on the paw pads can be painful as well and cause limping. You can apply topical antibiotic ointment and a soft wrap or a sock to help keep the area clean. If the cut is large or deep it may require sutures.


Broken nails are another common reason for limping. Often the nail breaks near or on the quick (the portion of the nail that is blood-filled and contains nerves) and the pressure of walking causes irritation. Sometimes the pain will resolve or the nail will fall off of its own, but other times it can cause the nail to grow abnormally. If there is continued pain the nail often needs to be trimmed at the break which can be very painful and often requires sedation.

Infection in the Joint

The cartilage and anatomy of a dog’s joints make them susceptible to bacterial and viral infections. When a dog’s joints become infected, it’s known as “septic arthritis.” This is a serious condition that can require antibiotics and surgery if it’s not treated quickly. There are many signs of septic arthritis in dogs, including swelling, redness, and warmth around the joint. Your dog may also be lethargic, in pain, and have a decreased appetite. You should have your dog examined by a veterinarian immediately if you notice any of these signs.


There are many many reasons for joint pain and lameness so more serious than others. Here are my basic rules of thumb for when to seek veterinary care:

  • Duration of limping >72 hours
  • Non-wt bearing on a limb for >12 hours
  • Getting worse instead of better
  • Swelling of the joint
  • Known instances of trauma (car accident, fall, etc)
  • When combined with other signs of illness like lethargy, fever, or decreased appetite

Human pain relievers are not safe for dogs (aspirin, ibuprofen, Tylenol)


The best thing you can do if your dog is experiencing joint pain is to enforce strict rest for a few days. Natural pain reliving supplements like CBD, chamomile, and arnica are great to have on hand for minor pain.


Get my pain relief guide HERE!





September 21, 2022


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