It’s difficult to see dogs suffering a limp, and even worse that they can’t communicate with us where and how much it hurts. A trip to the vet is the obvious choice for figuring out what exactly is ailing your pet, but before you rush to the animal hospital, you may be curious whether the limp is a true emergency, and what the culprit could be.

There are two types of limps: gradual and sudden onset. Knowing which form your dog is experiencing will assist your vet with diagnosing the cause.

Sudden onset limps, as the name implies, occur abruptly due to injury or trauma. They can range from minor gait modification to complete inability to bear weight, just as different injuries affect us. Regardless of the severity of the limp, if it doesn’t resolve quickly after the incident, you should take your dog to the vet as soon as you can to avoid further damage and prolonged pain.

Gradual onset limps grow worse over time and are usually caused by a chronic condition or overuse injury. These limps can also range in severity, and can be tricky to notice in early stages. Like with sudden onset limps, as soon as you notice your dog is struggling, you need to address it.

Here are the most common causes of limping, both gradual and sudden onset, and in no particular order:

  • Paw injuries, like splinters, cuts, insect bites or stings, broken toenails, burns, and frostbite. Incessant licking is a sign of paw injury.
  • Broken or fractured bones
  • Dislocations
  • Ligament tears and ruptures, such as the CCL
  • Sprains
  • Joint diseases, such as osteoarthritis, dysplasia, patellar luxation, and intervertebral disk disease
  • Spinal injury
  • Lyme disease
  • Bone diseases
  • Cancers

If your dog is limping, what should you do? Just how pressing is a visit to the vet? Should you head to a 24/7 emergency center if the issue occurs outside of office hours?

Limps don’t often show external damage, and when the damage is external, it’s obvious that emergency care is needed. Dogs may “power through” with just a slight change in their step, they may lightly place their paw down as they walk, or they may not be able to use the limb at all. Sometimes the limp comes and goes, and sometimes it resolves itself before you even have it examined. Use your best judgement and monitor closely.

No matter the case, it’s a safe bet to take your dog for evaluation by a veterinarian. Pets can’t tell us exactly what’s wrong, so it’s our responsibility to keep them as safe and pain-free as possible!


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