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Limping in dogs

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There are many causes of limping and lameness in young dogs. Most are minor problems that generally resolve without treatment, although some are serious conditions that can lead to permanent lameness unless promptly treated. These conditions are most common in large breeds (ie, adult weight greater than 60 pounds), especially during the first 1-2 years of rapid growth.

The conditions listed below are usually considered whenever lameness lasts longer than 2 weeks. Several x-rays may be needed to accurately assess the various bones and joints involved. In many cases, a sedative or anesthesia is needed to perform a complete musculoskeletal examination and to obtain good quality x-rays.

Hip dysplasia is a common condition of large-breed dogs.

Elbow dysplasia results when the bones that make up the elbow do not form properly. Usually, part of the ulna bone at the back of the elbow does not completely harden, resulting in a condition known as ununited anconeal process. The elbow(s) can be very unstable, which quickly leads to arthritis. Dogs are lame on the affected leg(s), and extending the elbow may be painful. Treatment requires surgery, which is best done early before arthritis develops.

Fractured coronoid process is a fracture in a small boney protrusion on the radius, which is the large bone of the forearm and part of the elbow joint. This fracture causes pain and joint instability. Prompt surgery is needed to relieve pain and return the leg to full function.

Panosteitis is an inflammation of the long bones of the front and/or back legs, possibly in more than one bone at a time. Panosteitis is also called "long bone pain" or "growing pains." Dogs often limp, with the limp shifting from one leg to another. The bone inflammation usually resolves on its own after the dog stops growing. Medications can be used to relieve pain.

Osteochondrosis dissecans is a defect in the surface of the cartilage within one or more joints, most commonly the shoulder. Some defects may heal on their own after several weeks of restricted activity. However, in many cases a piece of cartilage can break off and float around the joint causing damage. This "joint mouse" can cause pain and limping. Surgery is needed to remove the defective or loose piece of cartilage.

Hypertrophic osteodystrophy is inflammation in the ends of the long bones, which is where most bone growth occurs. The joints are usually swollen and painful, which may cause a fever and loss of appetite. This disease usually resolves on its own with no permanent damage, although sometimes the legs become deformed. Treatment consists of medication to reduce pain and inflammation.

Q&A

Is all limping in dogs serious?

Most limping is caused by minor problems (eg, sprains, pulls, etc.) that resolve without treatment.  However, persistent limping can be a sign of a more serious condition, especially among large breeds of dogs during the first 1-2 years of rapid growth.

What are some common conditions that can cause persistent or recurrent limping?

Chronic conditions associated with limping include hip dysplasia, elbow dysplasia, panosteotis, fractured coronoid process, osteochrondrosis desicans, and hypertrophic osteodystrophy.  

Can theses conditions cause future problems?

Many of these conditions can cause joint instability and subsequent arthritis, so you should bring persistent limping to the attention of your veterinarian.  

Credit: Written and reviewed by John A. Bukowski, DVM, MPH, PhDand Susan E. Aiello, DVM, ELS
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