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. The shoulders, legs or feet may be involved, with muscles, bones, tendons, joints, paw pads and claws all having the potential to cause lameness 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:
Arthritis, ingrown claws or cancer are more common in older cats.
Bite wound abscess, broken bones, lacerations and Lyme disease are seen more frequently in outdoor cats, particularly unneutered males who are more likely to be involved in territorial fights.
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.
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
Taking a shorter step on the painful leg
Decrease in activity
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.
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
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?
Check the muscles, tendons, joints, and bones for evidence of heat, pain, swelling or other irregularities.
Carefully look over the affected limb for signs of cuts or abrasions.
Check 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 cannot 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 diseases such as Lyme disease and anaplasmosis.
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 while the strain heals and confine the cat during recovery to avoid further damage.
Drain, flush and pack the abscess, discharge with oral antibiotics.
Flush the wound and apply antiseptic. Seek veterinary attention for a deep wound or one longer than 2 cm.
Oral antibiotics, a culture and sensitivity should be taken to determine the most suitable antibiotic.
Removal of the object and antiseptic applied to the area.
Surgery to re-set the leg and a cast or bandage to keep the bones in position. Cage rest will be required to minimise movement. Painkillers will be prescribed to keep your cat comfortable.
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to reduce inflammation, provide warmth to relieve discomfort, surgery (arthrodesis) to fuse the joint surfaces. Supplements such as glucosamine, which is a natural form of cartilage may be of help. Keep your cat’s weight down to relieve stress on the joints.
Surgery to remove cancer where possible, or amputation of the limb. Chemotherapy may be carried out afterward.
Surgery to repair the injury. Rest will be necessary while your cat recovers.
This should resolve in time.
Soft tissue injury
Rest while your cat recovers. Keep him indoors during this period.
Manual manipulation and if necessary, immobilisation with a bandage. Cage rest while your cat recovers. Cats with congenital deformities may require surgery.
Paw pad injuries
Removal of the foreign object, treat wounds with antiseptic and bandage if necessary. Antibiotics to treat bacterial infection.
Tetracycline (usually doxycycline) antibiotics administered twice a day are the treatment for anaplasmosis. Most cats will improve within 24-48 hours.
Most nail injuries heal in time. It may be necessary to cut damaged claws to prevent further damage. Watch for signs of infection.
Mild cases may not require treatment. Severe patellar luxation will require surgery.
Corticosteroids may be prescribed initially. If the condition doesn’t improve, stronger immunosuppressive drugs may be prescribed. Antibiotics and antiseptics to treat secondary infections.
Regular blood transfusions and vitamin K. Avoid surgery unless absolutely necessary. Affected cats should be kept indoors.
Snake or insect bite
Treatment depends on the severity. A venomous snake bite will need antivenom and intensive supportive care. Non-venomous bites or stings should resolve in time. Antihistamines can be given to relieve itching and swelling.
Cruciate ligament rupture
Non-surgical treatment may include rest and anti-inflammatory drugs. Surgery will be necessary to repair severe cases.
Painkillers and antibiotics. For cats severely frostbitten, amputation of the dead tissue will be necessary.
Plasma cell pododermatitis
Some cases, spontaneously recover in a few weeks. Immunosuppressive drugs such as Interferon for cats who don’t improve.
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.
Follow your veterinarian’s instructions and administer medications as required.
Confine the cat indoors during recovery. If the veterinarian recommends rest, keep the cat in a small room or in a large dog crate. Provide food, water bowls, a litter tray and 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.