Leg Dragging

It is not unusual for pets to bump or bruise their legs. If one of the legs is actually dragging, however, he may have a serious problem.

"When I see a cat or dog dragging his leg, I think of nerve damage," says Joanne Hibbs, D.V.M., a veterinarian in private practice in Powell, Tennessee. Nerves are responsible for carrying messages to and from the legs, spinal cord, and brain. When nerves are damaged, the messages get blocked -- and your pet may be unable to use his leg.

There are many possible causes of nerve damage. Pets that have been hit by cars may bruise or tear a group of nerves (the brachial plexus) under the armpit that controls the front leg. An injury to this area may cause pets to drop to their elbows and drag their wrists on the ground.

If one or both of the hind legs is dragging, there could be an injury to the sciatic nerve, which carries signals from the spinal cord all the way down the leg.

It is very rare, but nerve damage may occur during routine vaccinations or other shots. Injections are often given in the back of the thigh, where muscles wrap around the sciatic nerve. Hitting the nerve with the needle or bathing it in irritating medications may cause the leg to drag, says Dr. Hibbs. Fortunately, this doesn't happen often, and when it does, the leg usually heals within a month.

If your dog suddenly starts dragging both hind legs and he hasn't been in an accident, there is a good chance that he has ruptured a disk in his back, says Dr. Hibbs. Disks are the padding between the bones of the spine. They are designed like a jelly doughnut -- firm on the outside with a softer gel inside. If the outer portion weakens, the gel can ooze out, possibly pressing on the spinal cord and preventing signals from reaching the legs, she says.

Cats don't get disk problems very often, but they are susceptible to a condition called aortic thromboembolism, in which a blood clot gets trapped in a vein serving the hind legs, says Dr. Hibbs. In addition to dragging their hind legs, cats with this condition may develop cold, painful, and slightly purple toes. This condition is usually caused by an underlying heart problem, she adds.

See Your Vet If...

  • Your pet's toes are cold or purple
  • He is dragging more than one leg
  • He has recently had an injection
  • 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:

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