Also referred to as "lameness", there are many possible causes of limping in cats, most of which are benign, but some do have more serious causes.
Limping may affect one limb or several, it may be constant, or it comes and goes. The most common causes of limping include:
- Abscess, a walled off collection of pus often caused by a bite wound and is seen more in cats who roam outside particularly un-neutered males.
- Abnormal heartworm migration to an artery in the leg.
- Back injuries from a fall, trauma.
- Arthritis, inflammation of the joints. There are several types of arthritis, older cats are prone to osteoarthritis which is caused by a break down of the joints.
- Bone cancer which may have originated in the bone or metastasised from another location.
- Broken bone (fracture).
- Calicivirus a common flu-like viral infection, sometimes it can cause transient arthritis in cats, this is known as 'limping syndrome'.
- Cancer or benign tumour of the leg bones.
- Declawing pain this may be pain from surgery, or declawing complications such as infection or re-growth of the claw.
- Hemophilia is a congenital disorder in which the blood doesn't clot properly leading to bleeding both internally and prolonged external bleeding. Internal bleeding can result in bleeding into the joints.
- Hip dysplasia is a congenital disorder which some breeds are predisposed to, including the Devon Rex, Maine Coon, Persian and Norwegian Forest Cat.
- Joint dislocation, in which a bone pops out of the joint. This may be the shoulder, hip, elbow or knee (patella).
- Joint injury such as a torn cartilage.
- Leg wound or laceration from a fight or injury.
- Claw injuries such as a pulled or torn claw, over trimmed claw.
- Infection of the claws, toes, pawpads due to injury.
- Lyme disease is a bacterial infection transmitted by ticks. It causes many symptoms including inflammation of the joints.
- Pulled or strained muscle.
- Overgrown claws which can dig into the paw pads causing pain, inflammation and in severe cases infection.
- Pemphigus is a rare auto-immune disorder which can cause red spots, blisters and pustules on the affected area. Many parts of the cat's body can be affected, including nail beds, toes and paw pads.
- Spinal cord or nerve injury.
- Sprains or strains (joints, tendons, ligaments).
- Paw pad injuries. Cuts, abrasions, foreign object such as a splinter or glass, burned paw pads, chemical burns.
Older cats are more prone to osteoarthritis, overgrown claws and cancer.
Trauma, abscess, broken bones, lacerations, Lyme disease are seen more often in outdoor cats, especially those who are prone to roaming and/or fighting (unneutered males are at the greatest risk). Anything which causes your cat to land badly can result in trauma, dislocated joints, joint injuries. Joints can be dislocated if claws become stuck and your cat attempts to free himself, if your cat is handled improperly or stepped on. In some cases, congenital conditions can cause joint dislocations.
Symptoms of limping in cats:
Cats are very stoic creatures and may well be in far more pain than they let on. Limping may be acute, may come and go or it may be very subtle.
Common symptoms of limping, may include:
- Unwillingness to place weight on a limb, sitting with the limb off the ground.
- Stiff gait when walking, this may be more apparent upon waking.
- Shifting weight from leg to leg.
- Difficulty or reluctance to jump up and down.
- Taking a shorter step on the painful leg.
- Decrease in activity.
- Joint swelling.
There may be other side effects that accompany limping, such as:
- Pain and/or aggression when touched.
- Lump and or heat on the limb.
- Missing fur from the affected limb.
- Difficulty walking.
- Skipping gait (hip dysplasia).
- Bleeding from a wound or laceration.
- Abscesses often burst in time leaving an open wound with a foul smelling discharge.
What should I do if I notice my cat is limping?
Some causes are minor and may be treated at home.
Carefully look over the affected limb for signs of cuts or abrasions. Do not pull on the affected limb as this could lead to further damage and pain. Check the paw pad and between the toes for damage, inflammation, infection, spliters, glass, thorns etc. Look at the claws for signs of damage. Claws may be torn or in some cases have been ripped out completely which is extremely painful. Minor wounds may be treated at home with an anesthetic and a few days of rest. If the limping doesn't resolve after several days, please take your cat to a veterinarian.
Diagnosis of limping in cats:
There may be an obvious cause that you can see right away.
- Carefully look over the affected limb, making sure to check between the toes and look at the paw pads to see if you can find a foreign object, wound or bite/sting in the foot or leg.
- Very gently feel the leg from the toes up to the belly. Are there any lumps or bumps? If so, is there heat? Missing fur? Swelling may be caused by an abscess, joint problems, a broken bone or cancer.
- Gently move the limb, does this cause pain? Does there appear to be a loss of movement and flexibility? Is more than one limb painful than the others?
- Is one limb longer than the other (which could point to a dislocation)? Is there any swelling on or around the joint?
If you can not find an obvious cause (such as a foreign body), veterinary attention is necessary. He will perform a physical examination of your cat and obtain a medical history from you, including when the limping began, was it sudden or has it progressed over a period of time? How old is your cat? Is the cat indoors or outdoors, has he had any recent accidents?
If an obvious cause can not be determined (abscess, foreign body, injury, overgrown claw(s) etc), he may wish to perform the following tests.
- X-Ray or ultrasound to evaluate the joints, look for signs of tumours or broken bones.
- Blood tests to rule out disease such as Lyme disease.
How is limping treated in cats?
This naturally will depend on what has caused the limping. It should be noted that you should never give human medication to your cat, that includes painkillers such as aspirin or ibuprofen.
- Rest may be all that is necessary for a mild strain.
- Abscess will need to be drained, cleaned and a course of antibiotics prescribed.
- Antiseptic should be applied to minor wounds, wounds more than 1-2 cm, or obviously deep wounds should be treated by a veterinarian.
- Remove any foreign body you may find and apply a mild antiseptic.
- Re-set and apply a cast to a broken leg. Cage rest will be required to minimise movement. Painkillers will be prescribed to keep your cat comfortable.
- Arthritis treatment includes nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs to reduce inflammation, providing warmth to relieve discomfort, surgery (arthrodesis) to fuse the joint surfaces and supplementing with glucosamine, which is a natural form of cartilage and may be of help.
- Surgery including amputation of the limb in the event of cancer followed by chemotherapy.
- Treatment of traumatic injuries depends on the severity. In some cases, time and rest may be required while your cat heals.
- Limping syndrome from calicivirus should resolve in time.
- Rest is required for pulled and strained muscles and ligaments. Keeping your cat confined indoors and avoid him climbing or jumping while he recovers.
- Manual manipulation of dislocated joints and if necessary immobilization with a bandage. Cage rest may be necessary for a period of time afterwards. In some cases such as congenital deformities or severely dislocated joints, surgery may be necessary.
- Paw pad injuries will be treated depending on the cause. Removal of foreign object, treating wounds, and applying a bandage if required.
- Antibiotics to treat Lyme disease.
- Nail injuries typically heal themselves in time.
- Pemphigus treatment can be quite challenging. Corticosteroids may be prescribed initially. If the condition doesn't improve, stronger immunosuppressive drugs may be prescribed. Antibiotics and antiseptics are often administered to treat secondary infections.
- Hemophilia is treated with regular blood transfusions. Vitamin K may also be prescribed.
Follow your veterinarian's instructions and administer medications as required.
In many cases, your cat should be confined to indoors while he recovers.
For long term issues such as arthritis and joint disorders, keeping your cat's weight down should be a priority in order to reduce pressure on the joints.
Last updated 28th December 2016.