First Aid for Limping Dogs

By Lynn Buzhardt, DVM

Care & Wellness, Emergency Situations, Pet Services

Dogs have 2 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.

first-aid-limping-dogsWhat 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 lie at an awkward angle. Lameness due to interdigital pyoderma (skin infection) will present as red, moist lesions between the toes. Deeper infections like abscesses will appear as warm, soft, movable swellings 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 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 she walk on it but stumble a bit? Does she take shorter steps than normal? Does the leg never touch 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 her. Even if she’s not in obvious discomfort, manipulating broken bones or dislocated joints can cause unnecessary pain and may worsen the injury. Here’s a simple guideline to help you determine the severity of the injury: Most dogs will not walk on a broken leg or dislocated joint.

A good exam requires two people: one to examine the leg and one to restrain the dog. Painful dogs bite, even people they love, so be cautious. If the exam becomes too painful, stop! The evaluation of most lame dogs is best left to a veterinarian, but here are a few pointers in case you decide to give it a try.

“Painful dogs bite, even people
they love, so be cautious.”

After you identify the hurt leg, it’s time to pinpoint where it hurts. Begin your exam with the toes. Look between the toes for foreign bodies (thorns, splinters, grass awns) or redness (interdigital pyoderma). 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.

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?

  1. 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 water with Epsom salts to relieve swelling. Then apply antibiotic ointment.
  2. For cut or torn foot pads and broken nails, control the bleeding and treat as described in the articles First Aid for Torn Foot Pads and First Aid for Broken Nails.(please ID these and cite locations of articles)
  3. If the dog 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. Place your dog in a tub and swirl water around the leg, or spray the leg with a hose for 15 minutes twice daily.
  4. For abscesses, apply warm compresses to the affected area or soak in warm Epsom salts bath. If the abscess ruptures, bring the dog to the veterinarian who will clean the wound and provide antibiotics.
  5. Confine lame dogs and restrict their activity.

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

How do I transport a limping dog?

Transporting an injured dog can worsen injuries, so proceed with caution. Carry small dogs to the car while supporting the head and hips. Lay the dog down with the injured leg up. For larger dogs that can walk on 3 legs, gently help them into the vehicle. If the dog cannot walk, use a blanket as a sling to carry her. When you reach the emergency clinic, ask for assistance in getting your dog out of the vehicle.

How is lameness in dogs treated?

Medical advancements have improved the care available to lame dogs. Non steroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDS) relieve pain and inflammation in acute injuries and are used long term for dogs with chronic arthritis. There are also drugs that improve joint health and provide safe pain control.

“Medical advancements have
improved the care available to lame dogs.”

For traumatic 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.

In short, there are many options to help a limping dog. Your dog will have a better chance of healing if you provide first aid when appropriate and seek prompt veterinary care when needed.

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