Cat Limping (Lameness) – Why Is My Cat Limping?

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Acute limping   Chronic limping   Intermittent limping   Symptoms   Diagnosis    Treatment    Aftercare

limping in cats

At a glance:

About: Lameness is an abnormal gait which most commonly caused by pain. It can affect one limb or multiple limbs. It can be acute, chronic or intermittent.

Causes: There are a number of causes of limping in cats, which include:

  • Soft tissue injury
  • Cancer
  • Torn claw
  • Arthritis
  • Abscess
  • Bone infection
  • Broken bone
  • Abnormal heartworm migration
  • Frostbite
  • Joint dislocation
  • Paw pad injuries
  • Pemphigus
  • Patellar luxation
  • Cruciate ligament rupture
  • Claw infections
  • Spinal injury or trauma

Accompanying symptoms: 

Reluctance to bear weight on the affected limb, swelling, abnormal appearance of the limb, stiffness, skipping gait, lumps or bumps, obvious trauma.

Treatment: This will depend on the underlying cause but may include confinement and rest while the limb heals, and in some cases surgery.

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.

Causes:

Limping may be acute (sudden onset), chronic (long-standing), intermittent (comes and goes) or other, which means the cause may fall into any category.

Causes of limping in cats

Acute limping:

Acute limping is sudden onset in nature, and is often (but not always) associated with trauma. Common causes of acute limping include the following:

Abscess

An abscess is a walled off collection of pus most commonly due to a bite wound. Male cats who roam are at greatest risk due to a higher incidence of territorial fighting. The head, neck, and legs are most commonly affected.

Symptoms:

  • Lameness
  • Pain
  • Warm and tender lump under the skin which may have hair loss
  • Fever
  • If the abscess ruptures, a foul discharge will ooze from the wound

Treatment: 

Drain, flush and pack the abscess, discharge with oral antibiotics.

Transient arthritis

Arthritis is an umbrella term which refers to inflammation or a wearing down of a joint and it comes in many forms including osteoarthritis, septic arthritis, immune-mediated, transient and many more.

Lyme disease: A tick-borne disease that affects humans, dogs, cats and other mammals. It is caused by a bacteria known as Borrelia burgdorferi. Infection occurs via the bite of a tick, which carries the bacteria. Infection can lead to transient arthritis.

Anaplasmosis: A tick-borne infection caused by intracellular bacterium Anaplasma phagocytophilum which takes up residence in the white blood cells of cats and other warm-blooded mammals.

Calicivirus: A viral infection which produces flu-like symptoms in cats. Kittens and cats in over-crowded environments are most at risk. Occasionally, cats can develop transient arthritis in the joints, which is known as limping syndrome.

Symptoms:

  • Lameness
  • Pain
  • Swelling of the affected joint(s)

Additional symptoms will be present depending on the underlying cause. For example, calicivirus produces flu-like symptoms.

Treatment: 

  • Lyme disease: A course oral antibiotics for a duration of four weeks. Keep the cat indoors and control its activity during this time.
  • Anaplasmosis: Mildly affected cats may require no treatment at all. Antibiotics for symptomatic cats.
  • Calicivirus: Generally, cats will recover once their immune system has fought off the virus.

Abnormal heartworm migration

Heartworms are parasitic roundworms transmitted via the bite of an infected mosquito. Cats are more resistant than dogs, but can still be infected with one to two worms.Once the larval form enters the bloodstream they undergo several life-stages before migrating to the heart and pulmonary arteries. However, some heartworms can migrate to other parts of the body including the arteries of the legs.

Symptoms: 

  • Lameness

Treatment: 

Surgery to remove the heartworm which involves making an incision in the femoral artery and carefully removing the worm.

Bone infection

Osteomyelitis is an infection of the bone which can occur as a result of puncture wounds, surgery, soft tissue infection, or systemic infection.

Symptoms: 

  • Lameness
  • Swelling
  • Draining tracts
  • Swollen and painful joints close to the affected area
  • Fever
  • Loss of appetite

Treatment: 

Oral antibiotics, a culture, and sensitivity should be taken to determine the most suitable antibiotic and supportive care such as analgesics to relieve pain, fluids and nutritional support.

In some cases, surgical debridement will be necessary to remove necrotic tissue.

Broken leg

The legs are a common site of injury in cats and most broken bones (fractures) occur as a result of trauma, such as a car accident or fall from a height.  Bone infections, cancer, and hormonal imbalances can also weaken the bones and cause the bone to break. Fractures can be open or closed. An open fracture is the more severe of the two and occurs when the bone sticks through the skin. The bone remains within the surrounding tissue if it is closed.

Symptoms: 

  • Lameness
  • Reluctance to bear weight
  • Disfigurement
  • Pain and tenderness
  • Swelling
  • Bone protruding through the skin

Treatment:

Minor breaks can have a splint applied to immobilise the bone while it heals. It may be necessary to apply pins to support the bone.

Severe breaks will require surgery to realign the bones and place screws and pins into the bone to hold the pieces together while the bone heals.

Cage rest will be required to minimise movement. Painkillers to keep your cat comfortable.

Declawing pain

Declawing is a procedure in which the claw and bone up to the first joint are surgically removed. Post-surgical pain is common. In some cases, an infection can develop at the surgical site prolonging recovery and increasing pain.

Symptoms: 

  • Lameness
  • Reluctance to use the litter tray
  • Pain when walking
  • Inflammation and discharge at the affected site

Treatment: 

Pain should improve as the paws heal, however, if an infection has developed, antibiotics will be necessary.

Frostbite

Frostbite is an injury to, and in severe cases, death of the tissue, due to exposure to extreme cold. The extremities, such as the feet, are the most commonly affected areas and cats who are wet are at greater risk.

Symptoms: 

  • Skin which feels cold to the touch
  • The skin has a pale/blue hue
  • If third-degree frostbite has occurred, the skin will feel hard
  • Blisters and ulceration
  • Lameness
  • As the area thaws, it will become red and blistered, the fur may fall out and the area becomes blackened as the tissue dies off.

Treatment: 

Painkillers and antibiotics. For cats severely frostbitten, amputation of the dead tissue will be necessary.

Joint dislocation

Joint dislocations occur when the joint pops out of its socket. The shoulders, knees, elbows and hips are especially vulnerable to joint dislocation.

Symptoms: 

  • Lameness
  • Joint pain
  • Abnormal movement
  • Refusal or reluctance to place the limb on the ground
  • Skipping on the affected limb

Treatment: 

Manual manipulation and if necessary, immobilisation with a bandage. Cage rest while your cat recovers. Cats with congenital deformities may require surgery.

Torn claw

Torn claws are a common injury which can occur if the cat has snagged the claw on something (such as carpet or tree bark).

Symptoms: 

  • Limping
  • Obvious damage to the claw
  • Reluctance to bear weight on the claw

Treatment: 

  • If the claw is bleeding, apply styptic pencil silver nitrate sticks, potassium of permanganate or cornstarch.
  • Carefully trim the claw to remove shredded edges. Watch for signs of infection such as redness or discharge.
  • Severely torn claws should be seen by a veterinarian.

Paw pad injuries and embedded foreign objects

Grass seeds, metal fragments and glass can become embedded in the paw pad, especially in outdoor cats. Grazes, burns and lacerations ca

n occur in the paw pads.

Symptoms: 

  • Lameness
  • Blood
  • Reluctance to bear weight on the affected foot
  • Foreign object

Treatment: 

Removal of the object and apply Betadine or Chlorhexidine.

See your veterinarian if you are unable to remove the foreign body or if the cat has a burn injury as infection is common and will require antibiotics as well as dressing the area to protect it.

Soft tissue injuries (lacerations or strains)

Cuts or muscle injuries (strains) can occur if the cat has been in a trauma or landed badly. They are generally not serious, but can be painful.

Symptoms: 

  • Lameness
  • Reluctance to place weight on the affected limb
  • An obvious wound if the cat has a laceration

Treatment: 

  • Apply gauze or a sanitary napkin to the wound to stop bleedin
  • Flush the area with a saline solution to remove debris
  • Apply antiseptic (Betadine or Chlorhexidine to the area)
  • See a veterinarian for lacerations loner than 1 inch
  • Strains need rest to heal, keep the cat indoors and prevent it from jumping while the limb heals

 

Tendonitis

The tendons are tough fibrous tissue which connect the muscles to the bones. Inflammation can occur when a cat lands badly or over reaches or in the event of a trauma (such as a car accident).

Symptoms: 

  • Lameness which worsens over time
  • Reluctance to jump
  • Holding the affected paw off the ground
  • Swelling and heat

Treatment: 

  • Treatment depends on the severity of the condition but may include surgery to repair the tendon, physical therapy, weight reduction for overweight patients and cryotherapy.
  • During recovery, the cat will remain indoors and avoid strenuous activity or jumping.

 

Plasma cell pododermatitis

Also called pillow foot or spongy pad, plasma cell pododermatitis is a rare and poorly understood condition in which inflammation occurs on the paw pad.

  • Lameness
  • Swollen, soft or scaly pads
  • Pain

Symptoms: 

metatarsal pad

The metacarpal (front) or metatarsal (rear) food pads are most commonly affected, which are the large pads behind the bean-shaped paw pads.

Treatment: 

Some cases, spontaneously recover in a few weeks. Immunosuppressive drugs such as Interferon will be necessary for cats who don’t improve on their own.

Snake or insect bite or sting

Cats are at risk of bites and stings due to their curious nature, the forelimbs are most vulnerable, especially to snake bites which can occur when the cat hunts.

Symptoms: 

  • Lameness
  • Swelling
  • Visible bite or sting

If the cat has received a bite from a venomous snake, additional symptoms can occur such as dilated pupils, drooling, vomiting, diarrhea, bleeding (mouth, nose, gums), collapse. Even a non-venomous snake can inflict damage. A snake bite is a medical emergency.

Treatment: 

  • Treatment will depend 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.

Claw and nail bed infection

Fungal or bacterial infection of the skin around the claw or the nail bed. There are a number of causes including  trimming the claws too short, declawing, trauma, systemic disease which affects the cat’s immune system and compulsive nail chewing (beyond normal).

Symptoms:

  • Discolouration of the claw
  • Pus
  • Crusting
  • Swelling
  • Lameness
  • Swelling and inflammation
  • Itching and licking (occasionally)
  • Onychalgia (claw pain)
  • Disfigurement of the claws
  • Flaking
  • Itching
  • Greasy exudate (malassezia)

Treatment:

If the affected claw has been damaged (for example, due to trauma), it may be necessary to remove the claw.

Bacterial infection: Topical antibiotics applied to the affected area. If there is no response, it may be necessary to prescribe long term oral antibiotics to treat a bacterial infection, the type of antibiotic prescribed will depend on culture and sensitivity results.

Fungal or yeast infection: Antimicrobial or antifungal soaks to treat fungal infection. Unresponsive fungal infections will require oral medications such as itraconazole, fluconazole or ketoconazole.

It may be necessary to remove the nail plate (which will grow back) to help clear the infection.

Spinal injury or trauma

Trauma to the cat’s spine can involve the spinal cord, spinal column, nerves or muscles. The most common causes of spinal injury or trauma in cats include a fall from a height, motor vehicle accident, gunshot wound, degenerative diseases, infection, tumours, infection, ruptured disc, vascular diseases and inflammation.
Symptoms: 

  • Lameness
  • Urinary and/or fecal incontinence
  • Pain
  • Abnormal walking
  • Paralysis

Treatment: 

Any cat who has been hit by a vehicle or a fall from a height should see a veterinarian immediately, even if no symptoms are present. X-rays can evaluate the cat for internal injuries.

Treatment of spinal injuries depends on the underlying cause but may include:

  • Surgery where indicated
  • Anti-inflammatory medications
  • Painkillers
  • Antibiotics to treat bacterial infections
  • Supportive care
  • Cage rest

Chronic limping:

Chronic limping is limping which develops over a prolonged period of time.

Osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis is a painful condition in which the shock absorbing cartilage which cushions the joints wears down and is eventually lost. Middle-aged to senior cats are most commonly affected by osteoarthritis.

Symptoms: 

  • Lameness
  • Swelling of the affected joint(s)
  • Reluctance to bear weight on the leg
  • Stiffness, especially in cold weather or upon waking
  • Decreased activity
  • Reluctance to jump

Treatment: 

The treatment is multi-factorial and focuses on lifestyle changes, medications, nutraceuticals and where necessary, surgery.

  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to reduce inflammation.
  • Provide warmth to relieve discomfort.
  • 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 (arthrodesis) to fuse the joint surfaces.

 

Hip dysplasia

Hip dysplasia (HD) is a painful condition caused by a malformation of the hip joint. Normally the ball of the femur (the round head at the top of the thigh bone) fits snugly into the socket of the hip (acetabulum), the teres ligament, as well as large muscles, hold the joint in place.As the cat walks, runs, climbs, lies down, the ball glides smoothly over the socket.  However in cats with hip dysplasia, the fit of the femur head into the socket is poor, surrounding muscles can also be weak, which results in the ball becoming easily displaced from its socket (known as subluxation).

Symptoms:

  • Trouble rising, jumping or climbing stairs
  • Bunny hopping gait
  • Bilateral lameness which becomes worse after exercise
  • Decreased activity or exercise intolerance
  • Reluctance to squat
  • Pain when touched

Treatment: 

There is no single treatment for hip dysplasia in cats. Treatment depends on the age of the cat and the severity of the condition. Mild cases of hip dysplasia where your cat is showing no signs of pain may not require any treatment at all.

  • If your cat is overweight, he will be put on a calorie restricted diet as the more weight your cat is carrying, the greater the pressure on the joints.  A veterinarian must supervise this.
  • Painkillers to relieve discomfort.
  • Anti-inflammatories to reduce inflammation.
  • Glucosamine supplement.
  • Avoid vigorous exercise, climbing, and jumping which may further inflame the problem. Keep your cat either confined indoors or in a cat run.

For cats who fail to improve after the above treatment options, surgery will be necessary. The type of surgery depends on the age of the cat and the severity of the condition.

Triple pelvic osteotomy (TPO)

This surgery works best for young cats who have 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 possibly 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.

 

Cancer (bone, joint, injection site)

Cancer is the unchecked growth of cells and can develop anywhere within the body, including the bones and joints. The type of cancer is categorised by the cell line involved. It may be primary (originating in a particular location) or secondary, having spread from one part of the body to another. Osteosarcoma: Osteosarcoma (osteogenic sarcoma) is an aggressive and destructive type of primary cancer which develops in the bones. It is the most common type of bone cancer in cats and accounts for 70% of bone tumours. Osteosarcoma most commonly affects the long bones of the legs, especially the hind limbs, or the skull, but can also occur in other bones of the body too. 

Injection site sarcomas: A rare but serious cancer caused by injection administration (most often vaccines, but other types of injection can also cause ISS). The incidence is 1 case per 1,000 to 10,000 cats vaccinated. Due to the highly malignant nature of this cancer, vaccines are administered in three locations. Behind the shoulders, in the right and left hind leg. This means if a VAS develops, the leg can be amputated. 

Lung-digit syndrome: While rare, cats with pulmonic neoplasia (lung cancer) can develop a condition known as lung-digit syndrome where cancer spreads to the digits of the feet resulting in bone lysis (destruction). Cats present with lameness, swelling of the toes and pain.

Symptoms: 

  • Lameness
  • Swelling
  • A firm lump at the site of the vaccination (VAS)
  • Pain

Treatment: 

Surgery to remove the affected limb along with chemotherapy as a follow-up.

Intermittent limping:

This type of limping comes and goes. There may be a pattern, such as upon waking, or when it is cold, but it is not there all the time, as with chronic limping.

Hemophilia

Hemophilia is a bleeding disorder in which the blood doesn’t clot properly, it is the most well-known of the bleeding disorders to affect cats.Normally, when a wound occurs coagulation (or clotting) occurs, which turns the liquid blood into a gel in order to form a clot which stops the bleeding, this is known as hemostasis, there are three steps involved in this.

Symptoms: 

  • Uncontrolled bleeding is the hallmark of hemophilia due to the inability of the blood to clot
  • Lameness can occur in cats with hemophilia due to bleeding into the joints

Treatment: 

There is no cure for cats with inherited hemophilia, treatment depends on the severity of the disease.

  • Severely affected cats will require blood transfusions either with fresh whole blood if the cat is anemic or plasma to replace active coagulation factors.
    Surgery should be avoided where possible in cats who have hemophilia. Where it is necessary, they should receive a blood transfusion prior to surgery.
  • Intermittent transfusions may be required for bleeding events.
  • Vitamin K may be prescribed.

Patellar luxation

Patellar luxation (meaning out of place) is a condition in which the kneecap (patellar) moves (or dislocates) out of the trochlear groove, and moves to the inside (medial) or outside (lateral) of the knee joint (known as the stifle joint in cats).

Symptoms: 

  • Lameness in one or both of the hind legs
  • As your cat walks, he may skip or hop on the affected leg, he frequently pulls the leg up towards the body and skips.
  • Reluctance to jump and climb.
  • Stiffness of the hind limb(s).
  • Cats with medial patellar luxation may walk with a bowlegged gait.

Treatment: 

Mild cases may not require treatment. Severe patellar luxation will require surgery with several options:

  • Deepen the trochlear groove
  • Reposition the tendons to re-align the patellar
  • Tighten the tissue surrounding the patellar
  • Realignment of the tibia and fibula

Other:

Overgrown/ingrown claws

As cats age their claws can become thickened, brittle and
overgrown, and eventually curl in on themselves, cutting into the paw pad. The claws on the front feet are most commonly affected. There are a number of reasons your cat’s claws may overgrow as he ages. Poor circulation and loss of mobility which impacts on the cat’s ability to groom himself are factors. Hyperthyroidism a common endocrine disease of older cats can also increase the rate of claw growth.

Symptoms: 

  • Brittle, thick and overgrown claw which if left, grows into the paw pad
  • Lameness

Treatment: 

Regularly trim the claws. If one has grown into the paw pad, see your veterinarian as infection is common.

Pemphigus

Pemphigus is a rare group of autoimmune diseases in cats where the cat’s own immune system attacks the tissues due to an overproduction of autoantibodies affecting layers of the skin. The disease can affect any part of the body including the feet and claws.

Symptoms: 

  • Red, inflamed pustules on the head and feet with areas of hair loss.
  • Vesicles are easy to rupture and when they do, deep ulcers form.
  • Pain.

Treatment: 

Corticosteroids may be prescribed initially. If the condition doesn’t improve, stronger immunosuppressive drugs may be prescribed. Antibiotics and antiseptics to treat secondary infections.

Cranial (anterior) cruciate ligament rupture

The cruciate ligaments are two fibrous bands which form an X shape in the knee, a rupture is a tear in one or both of the ligaments due to trauma, such as a sudden movement which twists the knee.

Symptoms: 

  • Hind limb lameness
  • Reluctance to place weight on the affected limb
  • Pain
  • Swelling
  • Decreased activity

Treatment: 

Non-surgical treatment may include rest and anti-inflammatory drugs. Surgery will be necessary to repair severe cases.

 

Risk factors: 

  • Arthritis, ingrown claws or cancer are more common in older cats.
  • Obesity can increase the incidence of arthritis and cruciate ligament rupture.
  • Bite wound abscess, broken bones, lacerations and Lyme disease: These conditions are seen more frequently in outdoor cats, particularly unneutered males who are more likely to be involved in territorial fights.
  • Trauma and joint injuries: 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.
  • Hip dysplasia: Can be hereditary and environmental, large breeds of cat such as Maine Coons and Persians have a higher incidence.
  • Patellar luxation:  There appears to be a higher incidence in Abyssinians, Bengals, Devon Rexes, British Shorthairs, Siamese, Maine Coons, and Persians.
  • Hemophilia: A breed predisposition has been linked to Devon Rex, British Shorthair, Siamese and Maine Coon cats and has been seen in mixed breed cats. The incidence of hemophilia is much higher in male cats.

Symptoms:

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
  • 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

Diagnosis:  

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?

Lameness examination:

  • 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?

Diagnostic tests:

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

  • Baseline tests:  Complete blood count, biochemical profile and urinalysis to evaluate the overall health of your cat and look for signs of infection.
  • Xray, MRI or ultrasound: To evaluate the joints, look for signs of tumours, infection, arthritis or broken bones.
  • Antigen tests: To look for antibodies for Lyme disease and anaplasmosis.
  • Blood tests: A number of blood tests are necessary to diagnose hemophilia, these coagulation essays, prothrombin time, thrombin clotting time and fibrinogen determination.
  • Tissue biopsy: A sample of abnormal tissue or lesions to evaluate for cancer or pemphigus.

Aftercare:

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.

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