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Find information on animal health topics, written for the veterinary professional.

Lameness in Dogs

By Russell R. Hanson, DVM, DACVS, DACVECC, Professor of Equine Surgery, Department of Clinical Sciences, College of Veterinary Medicine, Auburn University ; Dale A. Moore, MS, DVM, MPVM, PhD, Associate Professor, Veterinary Medical Teaching and Research Center, University of California-Davis ; Joerg A. Auer, DrMedVet, Dr h c, MS, DACVS, DECVS, Professor and Director, Equine Department, Vetsuisse Faculty, University of Zürich ; Joseph Harari, MS, DVM, DACVS, Veterinary Surgeon, Veterinary Surgical Specialists, Spokane, WA ; Sheldon Padgett, DVM, MS, DACVS

Lameness is a sign of illness, not a specific disease. It may indicate a disorder in the musculoskeletal system. Signs of musculoskeletal disorders include weakness, lameness, limb swelling, and joint dysfunction. Nerve and muscle function may be impaired as a result of changes to neuromuscular tissues. Problems with the muscles and skeleton may also affect other organ systems, including the urinary, digestive, and circulatory systems.

The Lameness Examination

In order to diagnose the problem, your veterinarian will examine your dog and review any previous injuries and current overall health. A veterinarian performs a lameness examination in order to identify changes to musculoskeletal tissues. The veterinarian observes the animal resting, getting up, and walking. He or she watches to see if the injury affects one limb or several limbs and how the degree of reaction varies with each type of activity. If a forelimb is lame, the animal generally raises its head when putting weight on that limb. The stride is also shortened on the affected side. If a hindlimb is lame, the animal generally drops its head when putting weight on that limb. The veterinarian will feel the animal’s bones, joints, and soft tissue for abnormalities such as swelling, pain, instability, a grating or crackling sound, reduced range of motion, and wasting away of muscle. More than one examination, sometimes with exercise in between, may be necessary. For irritable animals or certain tests, sedation may be required.

Imaging Techniques

Veterinarians may use imaging procedures to diagnose lameness. These include x-rays and ultrasonography, as well as less common techniques such as nuclear scintigraphy, computed tomography (CT), and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). During these procedures, the veterinarian will probably use a heavy sedative or anesthesia to reduce your pet’s pain and stress. See also Introduction to Diagnostic Tests and Imaging

Arthroscopy

Arthroscopy is a type of minor surgery in which a flexible tube called an endoscope is inserted into the joint through a small incision. It is relatively noninvasive and is used for diagnosis as well as treatment of lame animals. For diagnosis, the endoscope has a small camera attached to the end that allows the veterinarian to see the inside of the joint. The veterinarian is also able to remove dead or damaged cartilage or ligaments using the endoscope. This type of surgery allows for a shorter healing time than conventional surgery. Common conditions that can be diagnosed or treated by arthroscopy include osteochondrosis, tenosynovitis, joint fractures, and injuries to ligaments and cartilage.

Pain Management

Relieving pain is an important component of treatment for lame animals, and may allow faster recovery. As well, it is helpful for dogs with chronic conditions such as osteoarthritis. Nonsteroidal anti‑inflammatory drugs and other pain-relieving drugs are used to control pain in lame animals. Other methods of pain relief that may be suggested in addition to (or instead of) drugs include acupuncture, massage, and changes in diet. Your veterinarian is best able to prescribe the appropriate treatment for your pet. It is very important that you follow all directions exactly as prescribed.