Dogs and cats don't get knee injuries playing football or sprain their ankles tripping over toys, but their lives -- and limbs -- aren't exactly risk-free. They race through gardens, leap on trees, and sprint after rabbits. Which is why they sometimes come limping home as if they had a hard day at the mine.

Limping usually means that they have hurt one of their paws, says Grant Nisson, D.V.M., a veterinarian in private practice in West River, Maryland. Pets that spend a lot of time outdoors will sometimes step on a thorn or pick up a splinter from a tree. Glass can also be a problem, especially for pets who spend time on beaches or city streets, he says.

Long toenails can be a limp ready to happen since dogs and cats sometimes snag them on carpets or other rough surfaces, causing painful tears. Even running on hard surfaces like sidewalks can cause nails to break or tear, which is why vets usually recommend cutting your pet's nails at least once a month.

Watch Video: Pet Grooming Dangers



If your cat is hobbling about on three legs and won't let you touch the fourth, there is a good chance that he has an abscess, an infected wound that can be excruciatingly painful, says John Fioramonti, D.V.M., a veterinarian in private practice in Towson, Maryland. While dogs occasionally get abscesses, they are much more common and, generally, much more painful in cats.

Dogs and cats aren't always the most graceful creatures, and sometimes they take painful tumbles. If your cat comes home with a limp, he may have slipped off a fence and landed on his rear (myths to the contrary, cats don't always land on their feet). In addition, dogs and cats often push their bodies harder than they were meant to go, pulling muscles or straining ligaments in the process. Dogs are particularly fond of running at full speed, then suddenly changing direction, which can tear the ligament in the knee, says Joanne Smith, D.V.M., a veterinarian in private practice in Edgewater, Maryland. Cats do plenty of swerving, too, but because they are more limber than dogs, they are less likely to damage their knees.

Finally, some limps are caused by broken bones, says Dr. Smith. It is usually easy to recognize a break because the area will be swollen and very tender, and the leg may not "fit" the way it is supposed to.

Not all limps are caused by injuries, however. Pets that have been bitten by ticks may develop Lyme disease or Rocky Mountain spotted fever, both of which can cause sore muscles and creaky, aching joints, says Dr. Nisson.

In addition, dogs under one year old may limp because of growing pains, says Dr. Fioramonti. In most cases, this is a minor (and short-lived) problem, which will clear up when your dog gets a little older.

See Your Vet If...

  • Your pet won't let you touch his paw
  • The leg is swollen and in an odd position
  • There is a bad odor around the paw
  • He had ticks before the limping began
  • Your pet has begun having trouble walking, getting up, or climbing stairs
  • One or more legs is dragging
  • He has a limp that doesn't go away
  • One or more legs is in an awkward position
  • There is swelling in the toes, feet, or legs
  • Your pet can't get up
  • Your pet is constantly licking or biting his feet
  • The nails are broken, cracked, or bleeding
  • There are cuts, blisters, growths, or burns on his paw pads
  • Your pet is lame first in one leg and then another
  • He has pain when jumping off a bed or changing position

Next Steps:

Back to Legs, Hips and Paws Main Page
Back to the Symptom Solver Main Page

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