Limping Canines

By: Carley Gates, DVM

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Lameness/limping is a change to the normal canine gait. There are several differentials/possibilities as to the cause for the change in gait. 


  • Autoimmune – immune system attacks joints
  • Developmental, Degenerative – congenital abnormalities or arthritis
  • Inflammatory, Infectious – bacterial arthritis or tick-borne diseases
  • Neoplastic – tumor or cancer
  • Traumatic – injured muscle or fractured bone

The cause can be narrowed down with signalment (Age, Sex, and Breed – i.e. 10yr Male/Neutered German Shepherd), a detailed history of onset and duration, paired with a through musculoskeletal exam.

FIGURE 1: Numeric Lameness Scale




Grade 1

Sound at walk, weight shifting, lameness at jog

When lameness persists for longer than 3 days with rest

Grade 2

Lameness with trained eye, usually difficult to detect at walk

When lameness persists for longer than 3 days with rest

Grade 3

Weight bearing with head bob


Grade 4

Partial weight bearing


Grade 5

Non–weight bearing




A lameness is graded based on its severity, as described in Figure 1, narrowed down to the affected limb, then isolated to a specific location. 


Once the lameness is isolated to a specific location, the following diagnostics may be performed to rule out or confirm specific causes. 

  • Radiographs – X Rays
  • Specific Orthopedic Maneuvers
  • Testing for Tick Borne Diseases
  • Biopsies/Histopathology
  • Bloodwork


There are certain causes that may require specific treatments. However, appropriate exercise/rest and pain management are always a crucial aspect of treating a lameness. Weight is an important factor in controlling pain – an ideal body condition score of 5/9 based on the Purina Canine Body Condition Score Chart will minimize weight and pressure of the affected area. 

Common causes of lameness in small breed dogs

  • Medial Patellar Luxation – the kneecap slips in and out of its natural position
  • Fractures – broken bones
  • Joint Dysplasia – the bones that make up a joint do not come together
  • Neck pain – herniated disks
  • Pododermatitis – inflammation of the skin between paw pads

Common causes of lameness in large breed dogs

  • Arthritis – hips, knees
  • Cranial Cruciate Tear – ligaments in joints tear
  • Neoplasia – cancer of bones
  • Panosteitis – growing pains
  • Pododermatitis – inflammation of the skin between paw pads
  • Soft Tissue Injuries – torn/strained muscles

When schedule an appointment for lameness evaluation?

  • Sudden onset Grade 3, 4 or 5 lameness 
  • Any chronic lameness 

** If you are unsure if you should schedule an appointment for a lameness evaluation, please call your veterinary office.