Limping is an abnormal stance caused by a dysfunction of the cat’s musculoskeletal system which is made up of bones, muscles, ligaments, tendons, joints and cartilage.
Lameness can be acute (sudden onset), chronic (long-term) or intermittent (coming and going). The location of the limp, as well as its frequency, can narrow down the possible cause.
Causes of limping in cats
Sudden onset lameness occurs over a short period of time and is usually due to an injury, typically from a fall from a height or due to an animal attack.
- Bone infection
- Broken leg (may be closed or open; a closed fracture occurs when the bone breaks but does not puncture the skin, an open fracture is where the bone breaks through the skin)
- Declawing pain
- Joint dislocation
- Torn claw
- Paw pad injuries such as something stuck in the paw, burn, trauma
- Sprain or strain to the ligaments and tendons
- Plasma cell pododermatitis
- Snake or insect bite or sting
- Claw and nail bed infection
- Spinal injury or trauma
Chronic limping is limping which develops over a prolonged period of time.
- Hip dysplasia
- Cancer (bone, joint, injection site)
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.
- Patellar luxation
- Overgrown/ingrown claws
- Cranial (anterior) cruciate ligament rupture
- Arthritis, ingrown claws or cancer are more common in older cats. Pet owners may notice their cat is slowing down as they move into middle age.
- 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.
Cats are very stoic creatures and it is not always obvious that a cat is in pain.
- Inability to walk or run normally
- 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
- Decreased 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.
- Pain when touched
- Lump and or heat on the affected limb
- Missing fur from the affected limb
- Difficulty walking
- Skipping gait (hip dysplasia)
- 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
What to do if your cat is limping
If you notice your cat limping, the first step is to assess the cat and identify which limb is affected. Watch the cat from the front, back and sides to determine which limb is affected. Carefully examine the affected limb for signs of trauma such as bleeding, swelling or discharge and look for embedded foreign objects in the paw or between the toes.
If the limp is mild, and you cannot find a cause, a day or two of rest may be enough to help the limb heal. Do not give your cat human medications as they are unable to metabolism them effectively.
When to see a veterinarian
Seek veterinary care if the limp is severe, the cat cannot bear weight on the limb or is unable to walk or run properly, there are obvious signs of injury, swelling or trauma, or if the lameness continues despite a day or two of rest.
Safely transporting a cat with a broken leg
Closed fracture of the lower limb
- Wrap a piece of cardboard, rolled up newspaper or the centre of a paper towel roll around the limb to make a makeshift splint. Wrap the splint in clean gauze or tape to secure. Make sure the tape/gauze isn’t too tight that it cuts off the circulation. The splint should be long enough to reach the joints above and below the break. When splinting, do not attempt to straighten the leg yourself.
- If a compound fracture has occurred, place a piece of sterile gauze or a sanitary towel immediately over the wound and then splint.
- Wrap the cat in a towel and place it on a board to transport to the vet.
Do not attempt to splint a leg with an open fracture
- Rinse the area with clean water
- Cover the area with sterile gauze or a clean cloth
- Wrap the cat in a towel and place him on a rigid surface to transport to the veterinarian.
Be aware that a cat in pain may lash out. If you cannot safely splint the leg, transport the cat to the veterinarian. Do not attempt to treat a cat who is resisting as it can cause more harm than good.
The veterinarian will perform a physical examination of your as well as a detailed history from you. Which may include the following questions:
- How long has the cat been limping?
- Was the onset sudden or has it progressed over a period of time?
- How old is the cat?
- Is the cat indoors or outdoors?
- Has the cat had any recent accidents or fights?
- Have you noticed any other symptoms in addition to the limping?
A veterinary lameness examination will include a close examination of the claws and paws to look for signs of trauma or embedded foreign objects (splinters, glass, awns and thorns), and the evaluation of the muscles, tendons, joints and bones for evidence of pain and swelling.
It may be necessary to run diagnostics to evaluate the overall health of the cat and check the bones and joints.
- Baseline tests: Biochemical profile, complete blood count, 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: Several blood tests are necessary to diagnose hemophilia, which include 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.
The underlying cause will determine the treatment plan. Rest will be recommended for cats with minor sprains, strains and injuries to allow the tissue to heal.
Broken bones, joint abnormalities and tumours will require surgery under anesthesia.
Arthritis is common in middle-aged to senior cats and can be managed with weight reduction, environmental accommodations and nutriceuticals such as glucosamine, chondroitin and fatty acids.
Confine the cat indoors during recovery. If the veterinarian recommends rest, keep the cat in a small room or a large dog crate. Provide food, water bowls, a litter tray and a soft blanket or bed.
Long term issues such as arthritis and joint disorders can be managed by maintaining a healthy weight which places less stress on the joints.
Cats with moderate to severe pain can be prescribed suitable painkillers, always administer as prescribed.