Woman holding the leg of a sweet older white & tan dog who was limping.

How to Care for A Limping Dog (and When to Call the Vet)

Last updated on October 29th, 2023 at 11:05 pm

Trying to care for a limping dog at home can be a challenge. A limping dog is always a concern and should not be ignored. This is especially true if your dog starts to hobble around on three legs or needs help to stand up or climb stairs.

The first thing to do to care for your limping dog is examine each paw and leg for minor injuries. If possible, use first aid to stop any bleeding or swelling. Next, restrict your dog’s movements and make your pooch as comfortable as possible by adding extra blankets and pillows to a bed on the floor.

Then call your Vet for instructions and advice. If your dog’s limp continues for more than a couple of days, take your dog to an emergency animal hospital or clinic for evaluation.

Keep reading to learn more about dog limping, how you can help, and when to call the vet.

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Determine Why Your Dog is Limping Prior to Attempting Home Care

The most important part of caring for a limping dog is to find out why. If your dog has a severe injury, such as a broken leg, you could make it much worse by trying to splint a leg or move him. So, be very gentle when you try to examine your dog.

If your dog’s leg is broken, he will probably not be able to stand up or put weight on his leg. If you suspect a broken leg, you should not attempt home care. But if he is still walking and moving around, this may indicate a more minor injury, which can be treated at home.

Check each paw and leg for cuts, wounds, scrapes, or swelling. Many minor injuries that cause your dog to limp can be treated at home, at least initially. But if you cannot determine why your dog is having trouble walking or standing up, you may need to visit an animal hospital or clinic as soon as possible for an evaluation.

First Aid for Minor Injuries that Cause Your Dog to Limp

Both of my dogs, who are now senior canine citizens, have limped from time to time. The first time it happened, I felt a bit panicked since my dogs are too heavy for me to carry them around, and we have stairs in our home. Fortunately, most of their limping issues were due to minor paw injuries and could be treated at home.

Minor injuries that can cause a dog to limp include:

  • Bee or insect stings
  • Scraps, abrasions, or cuts on the pad of a paw
  • Wound or gash on a leg or foot
  • Thorns or stones wedged into a paw
  • Bruised paw or leg
  • Ligament or muscle strain
  • Torn nails

The first time my dog Charlotte started to limp was after stepping on a half-dead bee at the park. She yelped and jumped and immediately started to limp as we walked back home. Fortunately, the stinger was not embedded and her paw healed after a few days.

My other dog, Georgia, started limping after we played fetch at the local tennis court. The asphalt on the court was rough and needed repair, resulting in scruffed-up pads on her front paws. She limped for about three days until they healed. Needless to say, we found a better place to play fetch.

More recently, Georgia had a torn dew claw, which seemed to be causing her much pain, so I took her to the Vet. They surgically removed the broken part of the nail and bandaged it for 3 days. The bandage caused her to limp for a few days, but once removed, she became more mobile.

Inspect Your Dog’s Paws and Legs

First, try to figure out what is causing your dog to limp before you attempt to provide care. Encourage your dog to lie down and gently check each paw and leg for injury. Carefully remove thorns, pebbles, and broken glass as needed. If your dog has been stung by a bee, do not apply pressure to the stinger, as that will release more of the poison. Try to flick it off with your hand or use a credit card to scrape it off.

Stop Bleeding and Dress Wounds

If your dog has a cut or wound, minor bleeding can be stopped by applying cornstarch or by using a stypic pencil. Use a dog friendly antibiotic spray or ointment such as this Silver Biotics gel by PET Vet which you can buy from Chewy.

Dress the wound, but do not bandage it, as it will need air to flow. If you have a medical collar, place it over your dog’s head to prevent chewing and licking.

Prevent Your Dog from Licking or Chewing

It is natural for a dog to try to heal themselves. They will lick or chew at a sore spot or wound, but they will only make it worse! So, try to get a medical collar from your local pet store or buy one online from Amazon.

I like these softer Kuoser cones for sleeping, and they also allow my dog to push her way through the doggie door. But they get dirty and wear out faster than plastic cones, which are more durable. Plastic cones also allow dogs to use their peripheral vision better during the day.

Restrict Your Dog’s Movement

Regardless of how your dog injured their paw or leg, home care for your limping dog should always involve rest. This is especially true if you are not sure what caused your dog to begin to limp. Get your pup settled in a nice comfy bed on the floor with many cushy blankets. Give your dog their favorite toys and special treats to encourage them to rest and stay put. You may need to restrain your dog with a leash or crate.

After Georgia had surgery on her dew claw, I installed a temporary child gate at the bottom of the stairs to keep her from running up and down. She could only hobble but was determined to climb those stairs despite the pain!

Dogs can be very stoic and do all they can to keep going despite an injury. So, it is up to us to restrain them so they can heal.

When to Visit the Vet for Severe Limping

Sudden and Acute Symptom

A severe injury may arise after an outing or a rigorous play date leaving your dog hobbling and struggling to get up and move around. If your dog tries to get up to greet you as you come through the door only to collapse and stay lying on the floor, he is probably in pain.

Acute and serious injuries can include:

  • Broken legs
  • Torn ligaments
  • Severe muscle and ligament strains
  • Joint dislocation
  • Severe illness with fever and exhaustion
  • Nerve damage or spinal injury

In general, a dog with a broken bone or torn ligament will not be able to stand or walk. A dislocated joint may also cause a dog avoid putting weight on a joint. Your dog may also yelp or whine if he is experiencing a lot of pain.

If you notice swelling on a leg or foot it could be the result of an injury such as a strained ligament, or it could be caused by an insect or spider bite. Either situation may cause limping, which may or may not be serious. But until you can get to an animal hospital, you can temporarily reduce the swelling by applying ice for 15 minutes 3 times daily.

Keep your dog lying down and restrict his movements until you can take him to an emergency hospital or clinic. If you cannot carry your dog to your car, support him with a towel as he tries to walk on his other 3 legs. If you suspect a broken bone, avoid moving the injured leg or foot and get help lifting your dog into the car. Call the hospital or clinic for instructions and get their help once you arrive.

Symptoms that Come on Gradually

If you have noticed that your dog is beginning to have trouble jumping into the car or onto furniture, he may have a progressive illness. You may also notice your dog slowing down on walks or lying down when you stop during your walks at the park.

Some of the more common progressive diseases include:

  • Arthritis
  • Invertebral disc disease
  • Bone disease or cancer
  • Inflammatory diseases
  • Lyme disease
  • Congenital abnormalities
  • Hip displaysia

Often these conditions worsen over time and do not come on suddenly. However, arthritis could lead to a sudden joint alignment issue that could cause sudden limping. A dog with any one of these issues may slowly get worse and then have a triggering event that causes a more problem.

This happened to my dog Charlotte when she reached 10 years of age. After a hard run at the doggie park, she came home and suddenly had trouble getting up and walking around. She could put weight on her leg but limped and hobbled around.

I took her to the vet the next day and X-Rays revealed arthritis in her right front shoulder. Her shoulder was slightly out of alignment causing her to limp. The vet was able to manipulate it and pop it back into place. The next day, her limp was mostly gone.

Providing Longer Term Care for a Dog with A Limp

If your dog has a more chronic issue like arthritis, you can make modifications and provide additonal support to help care for your pooch. Of course if the couse of your dog’s limping is due to a severe illness such as Lyme disease, you should get that treated first.

Accommodations for Dogs with a Limp or Other Disability

I have made some purchases for my dog Charlotte to make her life easier after she was diagnosed with arthritis. I noticed that she was more hesitant to jump into the back seat of the car, and I often needed to give her a boost.

So, I purchased some foam stairs from Amazon so she could easily climb in. I love these foam stairs as they are lightweight and small enough to throw into the cargo area. I only wish they had a handle. They are designed to be used inside next to a bed or couch. But they work great for the car. I also considered a ramp, but ramps take up a lot more room.

In addition to stairs and ramps to help your dog access your car and furniture, getting elevated dog bowls can also help. These are especially helpful for larger dogs who may have some neck issues due to arthritits. And to ensure that your dog has a good nights sleep for her weary bones, consider purchasing an orthopedic bed that provides extra comfort and support for dogs with sore joints.

If your dog has to walk up stairs to get inside the house, consider getting a ramp, so he can go in and out more easily. You may also want to modify your dog’s activities by shortening walks, playing shorter, easier games of fetch, and making sure your dog gets plenty of breaks during exercise sessions and walks. Be sure to see my post How to Keep Your Arthritic Dog Entertained for more suggestions.

Ongoing Medical Considerations for Dogs with Disabilities

My dog Charlotte is not fond of the Vet, but she loves her Chiropractor! We go every 3-4 months, and the sessions are very laid back. Charlotte gets a humongous amount of treats as the Chiropractor gently manipulates her back and shoulders.

Additionally, her Chiropractor has given me some lessons in gently massaging and manipulating her shoulders and spine that I can do as home care to prevent her from limping. As a result, Charlotte stays pretty limber and can still run and play. Be sure to visit my post 6 Great Reasons to Get Chiropractic Care for Your Dog for more information.

Final Thoughts

You can provide a lot of initial home care for your dog if she is limping. However, it is always good to check with your vet, especially if the limping comes on suddenly. Please use common sense and apply first aid measures if you need them. Sore paws, insect bites, or strained muscles can cause minor limping, but your dog may be able to recover in a few days.

However, if your dog seems to be in a lot of pain, or cannot stand up or walk at all, take her to the emergency hospital or clinic as soon as possible. She could have a serious problem like a broken leg or a serious illness.

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