Cat Limping (Lameness) – Causes and Treatment

Acute limping   Chronic limping   Intermittent limping   Symptoms of limping   How is the cause diagnosed?   How is limping treated?    

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. The shoulders, legs or feet may be involved, with muscles, bones, tendons, joints, pawpads and claws all having the potential to cause lameness in cats.

What are the causes of limping in cats?

Limping may be acute (sudden onset), chronic (long standing), intermittent (coming and going) or other, which means the cause may fall into any category. The most common causes of limping include:

Acute limping

  • 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.
  • Bone infection may occur as a result of bacterial infection after trauma such as a broken bone or bite wound, surgery, or a systemic fungal infection such as blastomycosis or histoplasmosis.
  • Broken bone (fracture).
  • Calicivirus  a common flu-like viral infection, sometimes it can cause transient arthritis in cats, this is known as ‘limping syndrome‘.
  • Declawing pain this may be pain from surgery or declawing complications such as infection or re-growth of the claw.
  • Frostbite can develop in any cats who are exposed to freezing temperatures. The feet, tip of the tail and ears are most commonly affected.
  • 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, paw pads due to injury.
  • Spinal cord or nerve injury.
  • Soft tissue injuries. Muscle sprain, torn ligament or tendon. These typically occur if your cat has jumped and landed awkwardly.
  • Tendonitis. Inflammation of a tendon.
  • Paw pad injuries. Cuts, abrasions, foreign object such as a splinter or glass, burned paw pads, chemical burns.
  • Plasma cell pododermatitis. A rare inflammatory condition affecting the paw pads of cats.
  • Snake or insect bite or sting.

Chronic limping

  • 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.
  • Hip dysplasia is a painful condition which is caused by a malformation of the hip joint. Normally the ball of the femur should fit snugly into the socket of the hip, but in cats with hip dysplasia, the socket is shallow, causing the ball of the femur to become displaced. Kittens are born with this condition and initially show no signs, but as the cat matures, symptoms will slowly develop. Cats with hip dysplasia usually have bilateral lameness of the hind legs.

Intermittent limping

  • 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.
  • Lyme disease is a bacterial infection transmitted by ticks. It causes many symptoms including inflammation of the joints.

Other

  • Cancer Primary cancers such as fibrosarcoma, parosteal osteosarcoma, osteosarcoma, giant cell tumour, chondrosarcoma. Secondary cancers which have metastasised from another location such as the lung or mammary glands.
  • Overgrown/ingrown 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.
  • Cranial (anterior) cruciate ligament rupture (partial or complete). These ligaments are located in the knee joints on the hindlimbs and stabilise the fibula on the tibia. This ligament may be torn due to a traumatic event such as jumping, and limping will be acute, or in the case of a partial tear or a slow and progressive wearing down of the ligament, intermittent limping will occur.
  • Patellar luxation is a common disorder in which the kneecap (patellar) slips out of the groove in the knee joint. It may be traumatic, or congenital (present at birth). Cats with traumatic patellar luxation will develop acute lameness, cats with congenital patellar luxation may have symptoms that come and go. One or both of the hind legs may be affected.

Older cats are more prone to arthritis, overgrown or ingrown claws and cancer.

Outdoor cats are more likely to experience trauma, abscess, broken bones, lacerations and Lyme disease, 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. 

What are the symptoms of limping?

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 up after a nap.
  • 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.
  • Aggression when handled, particularly in an ordinarily calm cat.
  • Reluctance or inability to jump onto furniture.

There may be other side effects that accompany limping depending on the underlying cause.

  • Fever.
  • Pain when touched.
  • Lump and or heat on the affected limb.
  • Missing fur from the affected limb.
  • Difficulty walking.
  • Skipping gait (hip dysplasia).
  • Obvious signs of trauma such as bleeding from a wound or laceration.
  • Abscesses often burst in time leaving an open wound with a foul smelling discharge.

How is the cause of limping diagnosed?

If you notice your cat is limping, it is always advisable to see a veterinarian as soon as possible.

Your veterinarian 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? Have you noticed any other symptoms in addition to the limping?

A complete physical examination will include the following:

  • Carefully looking over the affected limb for signs of cuts or abrasions.
  • Checking the paw pad and between the toes for damage, inflammation, infection, splinters, 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.
  • Very gently feeling the leg from the toes up to the belly for lumps and 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, to determine if this causes pain and the range of motion your cat has.
  • Is one limb longer than the other (which could point to a dislocation)? Is there any swelling on or around the joint?

If an obvious cause can not be determined (abscess, foreign body, injury, overgrown claw(s) etc), he may wish to perform the following tests.

  • Routine blood tests including complete blood count, biochemical profile and urinalysis to evaluate the overall health of your cat and look for signs of infection.
  • 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?

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.
  • Bone infection will be treated with oral antibiotics. A culture should be taken to determine the most suitable antibiotic.
  • 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. Keeping your cat’s weight down to a safe level is also important to relieve stress on the joints.
  • 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.
  • Soft tissue injury requires rest. Keeping your cat confined indoors and avoid him climbing or jumping while he recovers.
  • Manual manipulation of dislocated joints and if necessary immobilisation 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.
  • Patellar luxation. Treatment depends on the severity of the condition. Mild cases may require no treatment at all, severe patellar luxation will require surgery. There are four types of surgery for this condition.
  • 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.
  • Snake or insect bite will be treated depending on the severity. A venomous snake bite will need antivenom, intensive care and supportive care. Non-venomous insect bites or stings are usually non-life-threatening and should resolve with time.
  • Cranial (anterior) cruciate ligament rupture
  • Frostbite will require painkillers and antibiotics, severe frostbite may require amputation if the tissue has died.
  • Plasma cell pododermatitis. In some cases, spontaneous recovery may occur within a few weeks, other cases may be treated with immunosuppression drugs such as Interferon.
  • Hip dysplasia. Treatment depends on the severity of the condition. Mild cases may require no treatment, or painkillers to relieve discomfort. Severely affected cats will require surgery or a hip replacement.

Aftercare

Follow your veterinarian’s instructions and administer medications as required.

In many cases, your cat should be confined to indoors while he recovers. If your cat requires rest, he should be confined to a small room or a cage to limit movement. If he is put on cage rest (a dog crate works great for this), he will need his litter tray, food and water bowls and a soft blanket or bed.

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.

Related articles:

Cat symptoms   Broken leg in cats

Last updated 9th March 2017.




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