A few common causes of leg, hip, and paw conditions are allergies, arthritis, cruciate ligament injuries, hip dysplasia, immune system problems, lick granuloma and luxating patella. Learn more about these common conditions now.
Pets suffer from allergies when their immune systems respond to common things like pollen or food in the same way that they respond to aggressive viruses or bacteria -- by attacking.
People with allergies often have runny noses or digestive complaints, while pets tend to itch. The itching can affect the whole body, although certain kinds of allergies -- especially allergies to food and pollen -- tend to affect the paws. To get relief, dogs and cats will lick or bite their paws, sometimes for hours at a time. Eventually, the paws may become wet, red, and swollen. In severe cases, they will even develop painful sores that take a long time to heal.
There isn't a cure for allergies, but they can be controlled. The obvious solution, of course, is to help your pet avoid whatever it is that is making him itch. In the case of food allergies, for example, switching foods will resolve the problem. But it is almost impossible to avoid other common allergens, like pollen or house dust. That is why your vet will probably recommend ways to ease the symptoms, such as using cool soaks for itchy feet or giving your pet antihistamines. (Your vet will recommend a brand of antihistamines and dose that's right for your pet.)
When allergies are severe, your vet may recommend giving your pet a brief course of medications such as steroids, which suppress the immune system. Or he may advise that your pet undergo a series of shots that will make him less sensitive in the future.
Meaning "inflammation of a joint," arthritis is among the most common causes of pain in dogs and cats. There are many types of arthritis, but the kind that usually affects pets is osteoarthritis, or "wear-and-tear" arthritis.
Osteoarthritis occurs when soft cartilage inside a joint becomes inflamed, usually as a result of years of normal daily motion. The inflammation gradually damages bones in the joint, causing them to form ridges, grooves, or even bits of new bone called spurs. The spurs interfere with the joint's normal movements, causing pain and even more inflammation.
Other kinds of arthritis can be caused by infections or problems with the immune system, says Grant Nisson, D.V.M., a veterinarian in private practice in West River, Maryland. Pets with Lyme disease, for example, can develop very painful arthritis. So can dogs and cats with lupus, a serious immune system disorder.
If caught early, some forms of arthritis, such as those caused by infections, can be cured entirely by treating the underlying problem. In most cases, however, the only solution is to treat the symptoms. Your veterinarian has several good choices for pain control that are safer and more effective than over-the-counter drugs. (These include prescription pain relievers as well as alternative therapies such as acupuncture.) In addition, he may recommend medications that increase lubrication in the joints as well as drugs that can speed the repair of damaged cartilage, making it stronger and more flexible.
Cruciate Ligament Injuries
The knees are held together by tough muscular straps called cruciate ligaments. These ligaments are extremely strong and resilient, but they aren't invincible. Sometimes they get torn, which causes pain and allows the knee joint to slide back and forth like a dresser drawer.
This type of injury is rare in cats but is fairly common in dogs, particularly when they are having a good time playing with other dogs. "He might run and turn wrong or get a hard blow to the knee, just like in football," says Joanne Hibbs, D.V.M., a veterinarian in private practice in Powell, Tennessee. If your dog comes home limping after fun and games or he is unable to put any weight on one of legs, he could have this type of injury.
Minor tears in the ligaments will often heal with rest and perhaps physical therapy. When the tear is severe, however, your dog may need surgery to repair it. Unfortunately, he is unlikely to have the relatively easy kind of surgery, called arthroscopic surgery, that is commonly used on humans. Knee surgery in pets usually requires a long surgical incision and a day or two in the hospital. After the surgery, however, the knees usually heal completely and quickly.
Many breeds of dogs have hip joints that don't fit together the way they should. This condition, called hip dysplasia, occurs when the ball of the hip doesn't smoothly match the opposing socket. As a result, the joint grinds and wobbles. Over time, this wobble causes wear and tear on the joint, eventually leading to painful arthritis that makes it difficult for pets to move.
Hip dysplasia is a genetic disease, meaning that it is passed from generation to generation. It is most common in large-breed dogs like German shepherds, golden retrievers, and Labrador retrievers. Cats can also get hip dysplasia, but because they are so small and light, they don't usually hurt because of it.
"Our main treatment for hip dysplasia is controlling pain because you can't cure the disease," says Dr. Hibbs. When the problem is severe, however, surgery may be needed to repair or even replace the hip. The procedure can be quite successful, she adds.
For young dogs that either have hip dysplasia or are likely to get it, vets recommend regular exercise because it tightens the joint by strengthening the surrounding muscles. In addition, vets sometimes give medications that increase the amount of lubricating fluid around the joint, which can help reduce the pain.
Immune System Problems
The immune system is your pet's first line of defense against a variety of health threats, from bacteria and viruses to cancer cells. But sometimes it starts turning its formidable powers inward. "The immune system can get confused and think that part of its own body is a foreign invader," says Alice Wolf, D.V.M., professor in the department of small animal medicine and surgery at Texas A&M University College of Veterinary Medicine in College Station. "The attack begins and the body, which is really an innocent bystander, gets blasted."
There are a number of immune system problems, called autoimmune disorders, that affect the legs, hips, and paws. Pets with autoimmune disorders such as pemphigus and lupus may develop thick, split, or sore paw pads. The nails may get flaky or brittle, and the nail bed can get infected. In addition, pets with these problems often feel sick generally. They may have skin problems as well as painful joints.
Treatment for autoimmune disorders is aimed at getting the body's natural defenses to stand down, says Dr. Wolf. Medications such as steroids, gold salts, tetracycline, or niacinamide will partially suppress the immune system, making it less likely to attack its owner, she explains.
Dogs are a lot like people: Once they do something for long enough, it can be very hard for them to stop, even when the behavior is doing them harm.
People sometimes get in the habit of pulling their hair or smoking cigarettes. Dogs, on the other hand, may get in the habit of licking their feet. At first they do it for a good reason -- because they have allergies, for example, or flea bites that itch. But even when the original problem is gone, they can't stop the habit and may continue chewing and licking. They will do it for so long that the skin can develop painful sores called granulomas. Cats can develop compulsive behaviors of their own, but they rarely get this condition.
To prevent your dog from getting "addicted" to licking, it is important to act quickly and stop whatever is making him itch. This might mean using flea collars, for example, or keeping him indoors when pollen counts outside are highest. If your pet is already itchy, cool-water soaks can be very soothing. So can moisturizers and anti-itch creams, which you can get from your vet or pet supply stores.
Once pets have developed lick granulomas, it can be a challenge to get rid of the sores. Dabbing moisturizers on them may be helpful. If the sores are infected, applying a triple-antibiotic cream can help them heal. (Pets will often lick ointments off before they have a chance to work, so your vet may recommend oral medications.) In addition, your vet may advise that you give your dog fluoxetine (Prozac) or other mood-altering medications, which will make him calmer and more secure -- and less likely to lick himself excessively in the future.
A luxating patella is simply a kneecap that regularly pops out of place. The thighbone and shinbone, which meet to form the knee, have deep grooves that allow the kneecap to slide smoothly back and forth. If the grooves aren't formed properly or have been damaged, the kneecap may periodically jump off its tracks. When this happens, your pet won't walk smoothly but will actually skip a few steps.
This condition normally doesn't hurt and is usually more of an annoyance than an immediately serious problem. In the long run, however, it can cause bone damage that leads to arthritis. And in some cases, the kneecap won't slip back into place. That is when surgery may be required.
Luxating patellas are most common in certain small-dog breeds, such as Chihuahuas and poodles, and in some breeds of cats. Since it is an inherited condition, vets usually recommend that pets that have it not be used for breeding.
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