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What to do (and what NOT to do) when a pet is limping

What do do when your pet is limping.When I was in vet school, one of our orthopedic surgery professors had a saying:
“There is no such thing as an orthopedic emergency.”
Clearly he did not enjoy being called in the wee hours of the night.
Can’t blame him.
What he means is that an animal won’t die from a broken leg or ruptured ligament. Now, if they broke that leg because they were hit by a car, that is a totally different story! Playing ball in the yard and your dog suddenly starts limping – not fatal. Still sucks though!

Some limping type injuries can self-resolve in a matter of hours. You know how it is – you step on your ankle funny and it hurts for a while. You go to bed, forget it about it, and wake up fine. Good thing you didn’t spend the night in the ER! However, not all of us get that lucky.

What to do?

First thing – do not make life harder for your pet (or the vet) by giving pain medication that is not intended for your pet!  I can’t tell you how many pets I have seen for limping, and after I talked to them, I couldn’t care less about the limp. I cared about the toxic dose of pain meds (or combination) that the owner had been giving them. They won’t die from the limp. They can die from drug toxicities. So a simple injury I could have easily treated turned into a life-threatening ordeal, simply because the owner had nothing but good intentions.
If your dog or cat has been on pain meds for another reason, and you have some left over, that’s great! By all means, make your pet comfortable using what was prescribed for him! If you don’t have anything at home, this is not the time to get creative. And please don’t google search – you’ll find suggestions that can do more harm than good! (Remember, ANYONE can make a website.)

If you’re tempted to give aspirin – stop. Put the bottle down. In cats, aspirin is downright deadly. In dogs, a little aspirin won’t hurt them. BUT, it then prevents your vet from being able to prescribe more effective and safe medications, because many of those interact negatively with aspirin. As a veterinarian, it’s very frustrating to want to give a hurting dog pain meds, but I have to wait several days for the stupid aspirin to leave their system first!
So just don’t start.

Additionally, although it is tempting to want to help our pet in any way, resist the urge to wrap or splint the leg. Over 50% of the time, the joint the owner thinks is hurting is not the affected joint at all! You can actually make your pet hurt worse by improvising some type of “bandage”.

If he or she is eating, drinking, acting OK, but limping, it is not a life-or-death emergency, but we still want to get to the bottom of this! We vets can often tell based on physical exam which joint is hurting (it isn’t always what you think!), and give you options of x-rays, medications, as well as surgical options, if applicable. We can also provide pain medications for your pet that are designed for pets! So if the limping has lasted more than several hours, have your pet seen by a veterinarian and skip the “home remedies.” Some things are best left to the experts!

Web-DVM guest blogger Dr. Karen Louis is a practicing small animal veterinarian.  See more of her articles at her blog at

4 thoughts on “What to do (and what NOT to do) when a pet is limping

  1. Jessica says:

    Oh, That happened to my little baby too. I was worried, till the doctor explained me what happened and what should i do.

  2. Lauren says:

    Gosh, had no idea about aspirin. I own a cat and she felt sick. Thanks God I googled this.

  3. Melody says:

    Hello. I want more information about your services and where exactly I can find you? I own a puppy and I want you to check his health.

  4. Thanks for the advice about how to act when your dog is limping. My dog started limping yesterday, but I decided to wait and see if it got better. I can tell he is in pain, but would never give him medication that is not intended for animals! After reading this, I’m glad I didn’t make that mistake. I think it would be best to take him to see a veterinarian.

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