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Cat Limping - Causes and Treatment

limping in catsAlso 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, 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

  • 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  can cause transient arthritis in cats, this is known as 'limping syndrome'.

  • Cancer or benign tumour.

  • Declawing pain this may be pain from surgery, or declawing complications such as infection or re-growth of the claw.

  • Dislocation (bone popped out of joint).

  • Foreign body in foot (shard of glass, splinter, thorn etc).

  • Hemophilia (a congenital disorder) due to 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.

  • Joint injury (torn cartilage).

  • Laceration.

  • Lyme disease due to inflammation of the joints.

  • Nail injuries (pulled or torn claw, over trimmed claw).

  • Pulled muscle or strained muscle.

  • Overgrown claws which can dig into the paw pads causing pain, inflammation and in severe cases infection.

  • Spinal cord or nerve injury.

  • Sprains or strains (joints, tendons, ligaments).

Older cats are more prone to osteoarthritis, overgrown claws, cancer.

Trauma, abscess, broken bones, lacerations, Lyme disease are seen more often in outdoor cats, especially those who are prone to roaming.

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

  • Shifting weight from leg to leg

  • Difficulty/reluctance to jump up and down

  • Taking a shorter step on the painful leg

  • Decrease in activity

There may be other side effects that accompany limping, such as:

  • Fever

  • 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)

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

  • Blood tests to rule out disease such as Lyme disease

How is limping treated?

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.

  • For a mild strain, rest may be all that is necessary.

  • An abscess will need to be drained, cleaned and a course of antibiotics prescribed.

  • If you notice a minor wound, apply a mild antiseptic.

  • Remove any foreign body you may find and apply a mild antiseptic.

  • If your cat has a broken leg, it will need to be re-set, and put cast for several weeks. 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.

  • Pulled and strained muscles and ligaments require rest.

  • Dislocated joints are manually manipulated back into place by your veterinarian, cage rest may be necessary for a period of time afterwards.

Related articles:

Cat symptoms   Broken leg in cats