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Veterinary Q & A: Limping and Lameness

Is the leg broke, or just a strain?


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Your two dogs are running around, having a great time, and all of a sudden, YELP! Now one is limping and won't put any weight down on the foreleg. Is the leg broken? Is this an emergency?

As with any injury, there are so many variables involved -- age, weight, species/breed of animal, and the type of impact or injury that caused the lameness. The sheer number of possible ligaments, tendons, bones and other soft tissue that may be damaged mean that there are endless answers to the question of "what's wrong" with my pet?. This article will not offer a way to self-diagnose what is wrong if your pet is lame. Rather, the purpose of this article is to help pet owners identify when an injury is an emergency or if it can wait a bit for observation at home.

As always, diagnosis of your pet's problem cannot be made via the Internet. Please contact your veterinarian if your pet is sick or just not "himself" to discuss your pet's particular needs.

My dog seems fine, but occasionally skips a step on his right hind leg when we go for walks. He isn't painful, but I am worried.
Some questions to consider: how long has this been going on? Is it always the same leg? Is my pet in pain? If this has been a gradual change, it could be ligament degeneration in the knee, causing the patella (knee cap) to slip now and then, making the joint not able to glide as normal. If a sudden change, this could be a ligament rupture, possibly caused by a twist, partial degeneration, or other impact injury. Your veterinarian will be able to examine the leg, reflexes, and joints to determine what is the root of the problem. While not usually an emergency (no pain), this type of "off-and-on" injury and lameness should definitely be examined.

My cat's paw is a bit swollen and she is licking it. Should I wait and see, or call my vet?
Soft tissue swelling could mean a few things: insect bite or sting, infection and abscession, or blunt tissue damage. First question to ask: is the paw painful?

Bee stings can produce a huge swelling very quickly, but aren't usually too painful. (Cats are generally more prone to getting insect bites/stings on their paws from batting at bugs, whereas dogs typically get swollen lips from trying to snap at the bugs.) This is an allergic type of reaction, and if it doesn't get infected, will go down in 24 hours or less. Your veterinarian can administer or recommend medications to help reduce swelling and stop the allergic reaction.

Other bites/stings, such as those from spiders, scorpions or other insects can produce painful, nasty swellings with tissue necrosis (death). It is wise to call your veterinarian as soon as you notice any swelling on the paws or elsewhere.

Punctures, bites, and other tissue trauma can also produce large swellings that are infected (pus-filled). These swellings are often are painful, depending on what stage of infection. Definitely give your veterinarian a call as soon as possible -- medications to treat each condition are different, and if untreated, can get considerably worse in a short time.

My dog ran off last night, and came home this morning unable to put weight on his left front leg. She yelped like crazy and almost bit me when I tried to look at it. Should I just try giving her an aspirin and some rest?
As a general rule, never give your pet aspirin, Tylenol®, Advil®, or any human medications unless directed to do so by your veterinarian! These medications can be toxic.

An animal in this much pain needs veterinary care immediately, especially if you note any open wounds or blood. This could indicate a severe fracture that has punctured through the skin, a series of bite wounds, or other blunt trauma, such as being hit by a car. Your veterinarian will be able to assess the injury or injuries, and will know the best way to examine your pet as comfortably as possible.

As always, if you have a question about your pet's health, or if something just doesn't seem "normal" with your pet, call your veterinarian. The trained staff will be able assist you in making a decision to have your pet seen or if it is OK to wait and see how your pet feels in a day or two.

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Text: Copyright © Janet Tobiassen Crosby. All rights reserved.

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