9 Common Causes of Limping in Cats and Their Treatment

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At a glance

  • Arthritis
  • Abscess
  • Cancer
  • Soft tissue injury
  • Claw injury
  • Cruciate ligament rupture
  • Patellar luxation
  • Broken bone
  • Hip dysplasia

 

Common causes of limping in catsLimping (also referred to as lameness) is a common symptom which can affect cats of all ages. It can affect one or all four of the cat’s legs. In this article, we look at some of the more common causes of limping in cats.

Osteoarthritis

  • Limbs affected: Front and rear
  • Age of onset: Middle-age to senior

Osteoarthritis (arthritis) is a painful condition where the cartilage which cushions the joints wears down, resulting in bones rubbing on bones. It can affect cats of any age; however, it is more common in middle-aged to senior cats. There are several factors which can lead to the development of arthritis which includes obesity, previous trauma to the joint, hip dysplasia and cruciate ligament rupture are all predisposing factors.

Symptoms: 

  • Limping
  • Reduced mobility which is often put down to the cat just getting old
  • Reluctance to jump or jumping in several steps (i.e., jumping onto the sofa and then a shelf instead of leaping onto the shelf from the floor)
  • Stiff gait, particularly first thing in the morning or after waking from a nap
  • Limping
  • Swelling around the joints
  • Loss of muscle mass
  • Pain in specific areas you touch
  • Overgrown claws due to sharpening the claws less
  • Unkempt coat due to difficulty grooming
  • Changes to sleeping pattern, trouble settling down and getting comfortable, sleeping more or sleeping less due to pain
  • Urinating and defecating outside the litter tray

Treatment: 

It is not possible to reverse damage to the joints. Therefore the goal of treatment is to slow down the progression of the disease and relieve symptoms with lifestyle changes.

Medical management

  • If the cat is overweight, careful weight loss under veterinary supervision can help to reduce pressure on the joints.
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs which relieve pain and increase mobility.
  • Disease-modifying osteoarthritis drugs (DMOAF) to slow down the progression of the disease. Zydax is a medication which is administered once a week for four weeks by injection.

Lifestyle changes

  • Provide a soft, well-padded, warm bed in a draft-free location.
  • Ensure easy access to litter trays with low sides to make it easy for the cat to climb in and out of.
  • If the cat has difficulty grooming, a daily brush can help. Trim the claws every 4-6 weeks to prevent them from growing into the paw pad.
  • Add ramps where necessary.

Nutriceuticals

Food or food compounds which have medical benefits.

  • Glucosamine is a sugar produced by the body and a building block of cartilage.  Glucosamine supplements can help to slow the breakdown of cartilage and help damaged cartilage to heal.
  • Chondroitin sulfate is a naturally occurring molecule, and a vital part of cartilage that is believed may stop cartilage degrading along with drawing water to the joint.
  • Omega 3 fatty acids have natural anti-inflammatory properties and can be added to food.

Bite wound abscess

  • Limbs affected: Front and rear
  • Age of onset: Any age

A walled-off collection of pus under the skin which is usually the result of a bite from another cat. Entire male cats who roam are at greatest risk due to territorial fighting. An abscess can develop on any part of the body. However, they are most common on the front legs, the base of the tail, face, and neck.

Symptoms: 

  • How, swollen and painful lump, there may be hair loss over the affected area
  • Loss of appetite
  • Fever
  • Lethargy
  • Lameness and reluctance to put weight on the affected limb
  • Foul smelling discharge if the abscess ruptures

Treatment: 

The veterinarian will administer a general anesthetic, lance the abscess and drain the pus, and then flush the area with antiseptic. If the abscess is large, a surgical drain will be necessary to remove blood and discharge from the area. A course of oral antibiotics will be prescribed.

Hip dysplasia

  • Limbs affected: Rear
  • Age of onset: Any age

Hip dysplasia is an abnormality of the hip joint which is caused by a shallow hip socket which doesn’t fully cover the ball at the end of the femur (thigh bone). This causes the head of the femur to slip out of place (subluxation).

The condition is rare in cats; however, there is an increased incidence in large boned breeds which include Maine CoonsNorwegian Forest CatsPersiansHimalayansExotics and in the smaller Devon Rex.

Symptoms: 

  • Hind leg lameness
  • Weakness in the hindquarters
  • Reluctance to move or jump
  • Loss of muscle mass (atrophy) around the hip joint
  • Swaying of the affected limb when walking (cow hocks)
  • Difficulty lying down
  • Pain when touched
  • Reluctance to squat when using the litter tray

Treatment: 

There are several treatment options available for cats with hip dysplasia which are dependant on the age of the cat as well as the severity of the condition. Cats with mild hip dysplasia may require no treatment at all.

Conservative management:

  • Weight loss if the cat is overweight, this reduces pressure on the joints
  • Analgesics and anti-inflammatories to manage pain and reduce inflammation
  • Avoid vigorous exercise such as climbing and jumping

Surgical management: 

Triple pelvic osteotomy (TPO)

This surgery is best for young cats with minimal or no degenerative changes to the hip joint. It involves making three incisions in the rump, groin, and hip, the pelvis is then cut in three places and rotated. A plate and screws secure the pelvis in its new position.

Femoral head and neck excision (FHO)

This involves removing the head and neck of the femur. The muscles that hold the joint in place will continue to do so, without the femoral head rubbing on the socket. This surgery is cheaper than a total hip replacement. One leg may be shorter than the other after this surgery, and your cat may have a limp, but this should cause him pain or discomfort, and he should have a normal range of motion.

Total hip replacement (THR)

For older cats who have arthritis. A total hip replacement involves replacing the femoral head and socket with a metal and plastic implant.

Soft tissue injury

  • Limbs affected: Front and rear
  • Age of onset: Any age

Muscles, ligaments, and tendons are the soft tissue which connect, support or surround other the bones (and other organs). Soft tissue injuries include tears, strains, contusions and ruptures and are common in cats. They can occur in the front or hind legs.

Common causes of soft tissue damage include landing poorly, falls, twisting (such as a sudden change in direction at speed), fights, automobile accidents and due to abuse can all cause damage to the soft tissues.

Symptoms: 

  • Lameness and reluctance to place weight on the affected limb
  • Pain when moving and reluctance to move or jump
  • Swelling
  • Stiffness

Treatment: 

Most minor soft tissue injuries will heal on their own with rest and anti-inflammatories.

Moderate soft tissue injuries may need a splint, to keep the area still during recovery.

Severe injuries, such as torn tendons or ligament damage will require surgical repair.

Cancer

  • Limbs affected: Front and rear
  • Age of onset: Middle-age to senior

Cancer is the uncontrolled growth of cells within the body and can affect the soft tissues, joints or bones in the leg. Although cancer can develop in cats of any age, it occurs more often in middle-aged to senior cats.

Symptoms: 

  • Lameness
  • Swelling
  • Pain
  • Decrease in activity
  • Reluctance to move, run, jump or climb

Treatment: 

Surgery to remove the affected limb. Chemotherapy may be necessary as a follow-up.

Torn claw

  • Limbs affected: Front and rear
  • Age of onset: Any age

Claw injuries are common and extremely painful.

The most common type of claw injury is a torn claw. It may be partially or completely torn off, causing a great deal of pain. Torn claws may occur when the claw becomes snagged on carpet, climbing a tree or fence, fence or more seriously, due to a motor vehicle accident.

Symptoms:

Claw injuries are typically acute, with sudden onset of symptoms which include:

  • Lameness
  • Visible tearing or loss of one or more claws
  • Bleeding
  • Pain when touched
  • Reluctance to bear weight on the affected foot

Treatment:

While injuries to the claw are not life-threatening, serious claw injuries require veterinary attention to prevent infection.

Broken bone

  • Limbs affected: Front and rear
  • Age of onset: Any age

Also known as fractures, a broken leg is a crack or a break in one of the legs. Most broken bones in cats are caused by trauma, such as being hit by a car or a fall from a height. Other causes of broken bones in the leg include bone infection, cancer, and hormonal imbalances, all of which weaken the bone.

Symptoms: 

  • Lameness
  • Inability to bear weight on the affected limb
  • Extreme pain and tenderness
  • Swelling
  • Protrusion of the bone through the skin (open fracture)
  • Limb deformity
  • Hiding

Treatment: 

This will depend on how severe the break is, in most cases, it will be necessary to surgically stabilise the bone and re-align the broken parts with the use of pins and screws. Once the cat is well enough to return home, cage rest will be necessary to allow nature to do its work repairing the bone.

How a bone repairs itself:

A blood clot forms and specialist cells remove pathogens and debris from the area and chondroblasts form a soft callus over the broken area. Osteoclasts then form new bone cells, and by four weeks a hard callus has formed to bind the broken bones together. Over the next few months, the bone begins to remodel until the bone returns to its original shape.

Patellar luxation

  • Limbs affected: Rear
  • Age of onset: Middle-age to senior

Luxating patellar in cats

A patellar luxation (or luxated patellar) occurs when the cat’s kneecap dislocates from the groove it sits in (trochlear groove) and moves to either side of the knee joint in the hind legs. The disease is progressive and can get worse with age.

The most common causes of patellar luxation are trauma or congenital (present at birth) due to rotation and bowing of the femur, tibial tuberosity displaced medially, medial torsion and bowing of the proximal tibia or the trochlear groove is too shallow. 

Symptoms: 

  • Sudden lameness (traumatic patellar luxation) or intermittent lameness affecting one or both hind legs 
  • Skipping or hopping on the affected leg when the cat walks
  • Reluctance to jump and climb
  • Rear limb stiffness
  • Bowed legged (genu varum)

Treatment: 

No treatment is generally necessary for cats with grade 1 or two patellar luxation without lameness. 

Conservative therapy

  • Pain relief
  • Rest
  • Weight loss
  • Physiotherapy or hydrotherapy
  • Chondroprotective agents
  • Monitor twice a year

Surgical treatment

Surgery for grades 3 and 4, preferably before arthritis has developed. There are several surgical treatments for patellar luxation, which depend on the type of abnormality present.

Cruciate ligament rupture

cruciate ligament rupture in cats

  • Limbs affected: Rear
  • Age of onset: Any age

A cruciate ligament rupture is a tear in one or both of the X shaped ligaments which are located in the knee joint to keep it stable.

Causes of cruciate ligament rupture include a traumatic event which results in the severe twisting or pivoting of the knee joint or slow degeneration of the joint due to age which causes weakness. When the ligament ruptures, the entire joint becomes unstable, and the leg bones can move out of place.

Ruptures can be partial or full (complete). A partial rupture means only one of the two cruciate ligaments has torn. A full rupture occurs when both the cranial and posterior cruciate ligaments tear.

Symptoms: 

  • Acute or chronic onset of non-weight bearing hind limb limping with the toe pointing in an outward direction
  • Holding the affected leg off the ground
  • Swelling
  • Pain
  • Decreased activity

Treatment: 

Conservative

  • Strict rest for 6-8 weeks
  • Physiotherapy
  • Anti-inflammatories
  • Chondroprotective agents
  • Weight loss (if necessary)

Surgical

There are several methods to stabilise the joint surgically. The meniscus will also be evaluated for tears as this is a common concurrent injury in cats with a cruciate ligament rupture.

Pros of surgery are that the cat returns to normal function faster and there is a reduced progression of arthritis. However, all surgery has risks and costs more than conservative management.

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