First Aid for Limping Dogs

By Ryan Llera, BSc, DVM; Lynn Buzhardt, DVM

Dogs have two more legs than we do, but despite their numerical advantage, they still limp when they have a hurt leg or foot. Although most limps need veterinary attention, there are a few first aid measures you can perform at home if your dog begins to hobble around.

What causes lameness?

Lameness occurs due to the injury or debilitation of one or more parts of the leg: bones, muscles, nerves, tendons, ligaments, or skin. The cause of some limps is obvious.

With a broken bone or dislocated joint, there may be swelling, and the leg may sit at an awkward angle. Lameness due to skin infection of the feet will present as red, moist lesions between the toes. Deeper infections like an abscess will appear as a warm, soft to mildly firm swelling under the skin. In cases involving joints, nerves, tendons, and ligaments, there may be no external sign of injury.

How serious is a limp?

Some limps are more serious than others, so the first step in providing first aid is to assess the limp. Watch your dog walk. Identify the limping leg (right or left, front or rear). Does your dog carry the leg when walking, but balance on it when standing still? Does he walk on it but stumble a bit? Does he take shorter steps than normal? Does he keep the foot from touching the ground?

The second step is to establish a time frame. When did you first notice the limp? Did it start suddenly or come on gradually? Was trauma involved? Is the lameness worse at certain times of the day, like early morning or after exercise?

Should I try to examine the leg?

If your dog is in severe pain, do not attempt to examine him. Even if he is not in obvious discomfort, manipulating broken bones or dislocated joints can cause unnecessary pain and may worsen the injury. A simple rule of thumb to help determine the severity of the injury is that most dogs will not walk on a broken leg, torn ligament, or dislocated joint.

The evaluation of most lame dogs is best left to a veterinarian, but here are a few pointers to help you determine if your veterinarian is needed immediately. A good exam requires two people: one to examine the leg and one to restrain the dog. Dogs that are in pain may bite, even people they love, so be cautious. If the exam becomes too painful for your pet, stop.

After you identify the injured leg, try to pinpoint where it hurts. Begin your exam with the toes. Look between the toes for foreign bodies (thorns, splinters, grass awns) or redness. Examine the pads for cuts or punctures and assess each toenail for breaks or nail bed infections. Apply gentle pressure to each toe and note painful areas. Most dogs will pull the leg back when you touch a sore spot.

"Dogs that are in pain may bite, even people they love, so be cautious."

Work your way up the limb, identifying areas of tenderness by applying gentle pressure on each part of the leg. Note areas of swelling. Bend and flex joints. Resistance to bending a joint is a sign of pain. If something looks or feels unusual, compare it to the other leg. Then call your veterinarian with your observations.

What should I do for non-emergency limps?

  • If you notice a foreign body between the toes and can reach it easily, remove it and clean the wound with antibacterial soap. Soak the foot in warm water with Epsom salts to relieve swelling. Then carefully pat dry. Do not use ointments like polysporin unless your veterinarian has approved their use for your dog.
  • For cut or torn foot pads and broken nails, control the bleeding and treat as described in the handouts "First Aid for Torn or Injured Foot Pads in Dogs" and "First Aid for Broken Nails in Dogs".
  • If your dog has swelling that could be associated with a sprain, bruise, or tendonitis, apply ice packs to the area for 15 minutes and consult your veterinarian for further care recommendations.
  • For abscesses, apply warm compresses to the affected area or soak in warm Epsom salts bath. Take your dog to your veterinarian as soon as possible, as an abscess can become painful whether or not it ruptures.
  • Confine lame dogs and restrict their activity.

If lameness persists for more than 24 hours, seek veterinary care.

How do I transport my dog to my veterinarian?

Transporting an injured dog can worsen injuries, so proceed with caution. Carry small dogs to the car while supporting the head and hips. Lay your dog down with the injured leg up. For larger dogs that can walk on three legs, gently help them into the vehicle. If the dog cannot walk, use a blanket as a sling to carry him. When you reach the emergency hospital, ask for assistance in getting your dog out of the vehicle.

How is lameness in dogs treated?

Treatment depends on the injury that has caused the lameness. Medical advancements have improved the care available to lame dogs. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS), such as meloxicam (brand names: Metacam®, Rheumocam®), deracoxib (brand name: Deramaxx®), carprofen (brand names: Rimadyl®, Novox®), grapiprant (brand name: Galliprant®), firocoxib (brand name: Previcox®), robenacoxib (brand name: Onsior®), relieve pain and inflammation in acute injuries and are used long term for dogs with chronic arthritis.

Additional drugs that may be used for pain control may include gabapentin (brand names: Neurontin®, Aclonium®, Equipax®, Gantin®, Gabarone®, Gralise®, Neurostil®, Progresse®), tramadol (brand names: Ultram®, ConZip®, Durela®, Ralivia®, Rybix®, Ryzolt®, Tridural®, Zytram®), amantadine (brand names: Symmetrel®, Gocovri®, Osmolex ER®, Endantadine®), or buprenorphine  (brand names: Buprenex®, Simbadol®, Belbuca®, Vetergesic®, Buprenodale®, Sublocade®, Suboxone®, Subutex®, Temgesic®).

There are also supplements that improve joint health and provide safe pain control such as glucosamine and omega 3 fatty acids.

For fractures, there are surgical and non-surgical treatments. Some broken legs are splinted or casted while others are repaired surgically with pins and plates. Dislocated joints are replaced and stabilized with bandages or slings. Stubborn joints that dislocate frequently are managed surgically to provide long-term relief.

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