“My Dog Is Limping, But No Pain” – What You Should Know
Updated: November 18th, 2019
If you find yourself thinking “my dog is limping but no pain is there,” think again. Limping is a sign you should take seriously.
Here’s a little story loosely based on many visits over the course of my career: a client comes in with their dog for a routine checkup. I note a pain response when I examine their hips and ask the client “Has she been in pain?” and the client answers “Well, lately, my dog is limping but no pain is there. It’s just a limp, not pain.”
Oops. That’s a total misunderstanding of what limping means.
I don’t understand how this misunderstanding came about, but enough people have it that I need to be really clear:
There are almost no medical reasons for a patient to limp without being in pain. OK, maybe a couple, but these are incredibly rare.
Do you limp if you are not in pain? Of course not. Neither do dogs.
Dogs limp because it hurts them to bear weight on the affected leg.
When I conduct an orthopedic exam in limping dogs, I will get a pain response somewhere (foot, hock, shin, knee, thigh, hip, pelvis or back…or foot, wrist, forearm, elbow, bicep area, shoulder, or neck/back). These dogs hurt!
So what’s the problem here? Why do guardians believe that if a dog is limping, there is no pain?
It could be that there is the idea that there is no vocalization (whining, yelping, etc.). In other words, dogs who hurt make some noise or another.
That’s not true. Dogs in pain are not necessarily vocal.
For more useful information, get a copy of the Dog Cancer Survival Guide
When a dog gets a sudden onset of acute, sharp pain, he or she may yip or yelp. This is most common with sharp, sudden pangs of pain.
But chronic pain, extended over time? It’s very unlikely that dogs will make noises to indicate their pain.
Other signs often will tell you when a dog is in chronic pain. For example one sign of pain is the dog’s overall activity, and sometimes a decrease in activity (being “more sluggish”, or “tired”). One way we know that activity level is a good indicator pain status is because giving a pain reliever increases activity.
Here’s a good article with more pain symptoms described.
When I am faced with a limping dog in my hospital, I always advise taking the steps to figure out the cause of the pain. Then I proceed from there, depending upon what I find.
Many times I will prescribe Apocaps (which can be used as a mild anti-inflammatory), or a reduced dose of NSAIDs. If things are more severe, anti-anxiety meds and other steps like acupuncture or considering palliative radiation and pamidronate.
See this for my most recent pain medication and natural pain relief advice.
Brown DC, Boston RC, Farrar JT. Use of an activity monitor to detect response to treatment in dogs with osteoarthritis. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2010 Jul 1;237(1):66-70. doi: 10.2460/javma.237.1.66
Dr. Demian Dressler is internationally recognized as “the dog cancer vet” because of his innovations in the field of dog cancer management, and the popularity of his blog here at Dog Cancer Blog. The owner of South Shore Veterinary Care, a full-service veterinary hospital in Maui, Hawaii, Dr. Dressler studied Animal Physiology and received a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of California at Davis before earning his Doctorate in Veterinary Medicine from Cornell University. After practicing at Killewald Animal Hospital in Amherst, New York, he returned to his home state, Hawaii, to practice at the East Honolulu Pet Hospital before heading home to Maui to open his own hospital. Dr. Dressler consults both dog lovers and veterinary professionals, and is sought after as a speaker on topics ranging from the links between lifestyle choices and disease, nutrition and cancer, and animal ethics. His television appearances include “Ask the Vet” segments on local news programs. He is the author of The Dog Cancer Survival Guide: Full Spectrum Treatments to Optimize Your Dog’s Life Quality and Longevity. He is a member of the American Veterinary Medical Association, the Hawaii Veterinary Medical Association, the American Association of Avian Veterinarians, the National Animal Supplement Council and CORE (Comparative Orthopedic Research Evaluation). He is also an advisory board member for Pacific Primate Sanctuary.
My 15 year old Westie suddenly started to limp right in the morning when I lifted out of the bed to the carpeted floor. She didnt yelp just that there was a slight limp. I assumed cold weather setting in, noted this and was about to share with the acupuncture vet appointment that week.
While there was absolutely no issues with appetite, thirst or her demeanor, I got worried when she didnt potty but was falling over her side. Few hours later she lost consciousness which is when I went to ER to understand that her spleen ruptured. We did everything we could, including multiple blood transfusions after splenectomy but my pup’s heart couldn’t keep up.
This happened just a month back. I have been learning to understand what we missed. I came to know that front leg/ shoulder related limp without any muscloskeletal issue can be a referred pain to spleen or gallbladder (GB mucocele problems in some terrier breeds manifest as front leg/ shoulder use in an odd way).
The limp without any muscloskeletal issue and no urination for 6 hours (she ate wet food and drank lots of water) should have been a red flag to me. I assumed my pup was holding urine as she has done for many years.
Hope these subtle signs can be learned just to be proactive
So sad to hear about this experience WestieMom, but thank you for sharing. That is a really fascinating sign of potential hemangiosarcoma, and very useful to have in mind. Sending love to you and your family.
That’s very interesting. Those organs refer pain to the shoulder in humans, so it makes sense they could do the same in dogs. Thank you so much for this thoughtful post that will help other dog lovers.
I have a little girl that limps. Even had xrays done on her and vet didn’t find anything. Still limps though 🙁
Thanks for writing, and we’re sorry to hear about your girl. Have you thought about consulting with another veterinarian? It can be a good idea to get a second consult if your current vet is unsure of what is wrong with your girl.
You can find another vet in your area through the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine (ACVIM) 🙂
If you do decide to get a second consult, don’t forget to take your dog’s x-rays and medical history with you so that the vet has your dog’s history, and some data to work with 🙂 You may not be able to get the original copies of your dog’s results or tests, but you can ask for copies of them 🙂
Also, if your girl is limping, make sure to ask about pain management. She may not be vocal about being in pain as Dr. Dressler writes in the article above, but it may help increase her quality of life in the meantime 🙂
Having read this I believed it was extremely enlightening.
I appreciate you finding the time and effort to put this short article together.
I once again find myself spending a significant amount of time both reading and posting
comments. But so what, it was still worth it!
Did you ever figure out what was wrong with your dog? This is happening right now with my dog and I am very scared.
We had this happen with our dog. He tore an ACL and had a luxated patella. It didn’t HURT per se but his knee cap was loose and felt very uncomfortable and strange. It required surgery.
He will need an MRI most likely, if the vet suspects this is the issue
Dogs are very good at hiding their pain. They also can’t speak to us to tell us what’s wrong. A dog may just learn to live with a chronic pain because they might not know how to communicate it to us in any other way. That’s why dog owners have to be especially alert for subtle changes in their dogs behavior, like limping, reduced activity, sluggishness, loss of appetite, etc.
My dog was diagnosed with arthritis in her knee when I noticed he was limping on her back leg. I didn’t think twice about taking him to the vet because I didn’t want to make him suffer if it was avoidable! The arthritis diagnosis meant that we’ve had to reduce his activity and I give him supplements to promote joint health. I also use the Ortocanis dog knee brace to help support her knee, it being better stabilized means it moves less and he’s in less pain. It’s still pretty flexible and allows for range of motion, so it was perfect for him.
Hope he stays in such good shape for years to come..
Gianna, I hope she’s better, but if not and shes still limping please get her to the vet to be checked. Good luck!