Cats have two more legs than we do, but despite their numerical advantage, they still limp when they have a hurt leg. Although most limps need veterinary attention, there are a few first aid measures you can perform at home if your cat begins to hobble around.
What causes lameness?
Lameness occurs due to the injury or debilitation of one or more parts of the leg: joints, 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. Infections of the nail beds may result in crusty, deformed nails. 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 at all.
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 cat walk. Identify the limping leg (right or left, front or rear). Does your cat carry the leg when walking, but balances on it when standing still? Does she walk on it but stumbles a bit? Take shorter steps than normal? Does she 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 there a trauma involved? Is the lameness worse at certain times of the day (i.e. early morning, or after exercise)?
Should I try to examine the leg?
If your cat is in severe pain, do not attempt to examine her. Even if she 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 cats will not walk on a broken leg, torn ligament, or dislocated joint.
A good exam requires two people: one to examine the leg and one to restrain the cat. Cats that are in pain may bite and scratch, even the people they love, so be cautious. If the exam becomes too painful for your pet, stop. The evaluation of most lame cats is best left to a veterinarian, but here are a few pointers to help you determine if your veterinarian is needed immediately.
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). 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 cats will pull the leg back when you reach a sore spot.
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 joint flexion 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 note a foreign body between the toes and can reach it easily, remove it and clean the wound with anti-bacterial soap. Soak the foot in warm Epsom salts water to relieve swelling. Then apply antibiotic ointment, such as Polysporin.
- 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 Cats" and "First Aid for Broken Nails in Cats".
- If your cat has swelling associated with a sprain, bruise, or tendonitis, apply ice packs to the area for 15 minutes, twice daily. Flowing water improves circulation, reduces swelling, and promotes healing. If your cat will tolerate it, place her in a tub and swirl water around the leg.
- For abscesses, apply warm compresses to the affected area or soak in warm Epsom salts bath. Take your cat to your veterinarian as soon as possible, as an abscess can become painful whether or not it ruptures.
- Confine lame cats and restrict their activity.
If lameness persists for more than 24 hours, seek veterinary care.
How do I transport my cat to my veterinarian?
Transporting an injured cat can worsen injuries, so proceed with caution. Place your cat in a pet carrier while supporting the head and hips. If the carrier has a removable top, take it off and gently lower your cat into the carrier. Lay your cat down with the injured leg up. When you arrive at your veterinary hospital, leave your cat in the carrier until a veterinary technician or veterinarian can assist you.
How is lameness treated?
Treatment depends on the injury that has caused the lameness. Medical advancements have improved the care available to lame cats. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS), such as meloxicam (brand name Metacam®), relieve pain and inflammation in acute injuries and some may be used long-term for cats with chronic arthritis. Other pain medications commonly used include buprenorphine buprenorphine (brand names: Buprenex®, Simbadol®, Belbuca®, Vetergesic®, Buprenodale®, Sublocade®, Suboxone®, Subutex®, Temgesic®) or gabapentin (brand names: Neurontin®, Aclonium®, Equipax®, Gantin®, Gabarone®, Gralise®, Neurostil®, Progresse®). 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 options. 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 can be managed surgically to provide long-term relief.