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Lameness in young dogs

Getting home to find your puppy or young dog not placing weight on a leg is always a concern. There are many different reasons why a young dog may limp, some more serious than others. Causes of lameness can be broadly placed into three different categories:

  • Lameness due to trauma
  • Developmental and congenital (inherited) lameness
  • Infectious causes of lameness and cancer

Because the causes of lameness can be so wide and varied, it is important to have your puppy looked at by the veterinarian sooner rather than later when you notice any signs of limping or lameness. 

A thorough history is always an important starting point when trying to diagnose the cause of the lameness. A sudden limp would be highly suspicious of trauma, whereas a young large breed dog that has been reluctant to exercise and occasionally sore on a front leg may be more likely to indicate a developmental condition such as elbow dysplasia. Finding out about diet, exercise and activity, time of onset and progression are all important questions that the vet will ask.

The size of the dog also plays a role. Certain breeds are predisposed to developing certain conditions at different ages, and this can help in making a diagnosis. For example large and giant breed dogs are more prone to suffering from elbow and hip dysplasia, whereas it is rare in small breed dogs.

The vet will start with a clinical examination. It is not always easy to tell which leg the dog is sore on and examining each limb as well as the neck and back will help give a good indication. Sometimes more than one limb is painful and this is also an important factor to consider during the diagnoses. The vet will examine the whole dog, taking the temperature, listening to the heart and feeling the abdomen to ensure that a sore leg is not the only problem.

Trauma related lameness

Trauma may include anything from your dog jumping off a step and straining a muscle to being hit by a car and breaking a leg. If there is any history of trauma it is important to have your young dog checked out by a vet. All dogs respond differently to pain and some may still place weight on a leg despite it being broken. X-rays are usually indicated to rule out any possible fractures or dislocations. If there is nothing severe found on clinical examination and X-rays, rest and pain medication will generally be recommended, but if the lameness does not improve, it is important to take your pet back to the vet. Some dogs may be completely non weight bearing from tearing a nail or having a small bite wound. It is important that these are dealt with as they can lead to a more severe infection. Broken bones and torn ligaments might need more intensive treatment such as surgery but it depends on the severity of the injury as well as the location.

Developmental and congenital causes of lameness

There are several different developmental and congenital (meaning they are born with it or are genetically prone to it) conditions that may cause lameness in a young dog. Breed and history are important factors to consider as well as age at which clinical signs are first seen. Elbow and hip dysplasia are probably two of the most common causes of developmental lameness in large and giant breed dogs. Defects in cartilage growth, trauma to the joints, genetics, exercise and diet may all play a role in development and progression of elbow or hip dysplasia. The vet will discuss the possible treatment options and management of these diseases. Unfortunately most dogs with elbow or hip dysplasia will develop osteoarthritis later on in life.

Panosteitis is another condition that occurs in young dogs. It is most often seen in medium to large breed dogs between nine months to two years of age. It affects the long bones such as the humerus, radius and ulna. The lameness often comes and goes and can be very painful at times but tends to resolve after two to three years of age. It is a self-limiting condition but will require pain management and medication at times. X-rays are generally needed to diagnose panosteitis and follow ups will be needed to monitor the progression of the disease.

Other diseases which may cause lameness in young, growing dogs may include rickets, hypertrophic osteodystrophy and retained endochondral cores. Rickets is usually due to a poorly balanced diet and lack of vitamin D. If it is addressed in time it can be resolved if the dog is placed on a good quality puppy food. Hypertrophic osteodystrophy is a type of bone growth defect and is caused by Vitamin C deficiency and is often seen in medium size and giant breed dogs. Retained endochondral cores affect the cartilage and growing part of bones and occur in large and giant breed dogs that are growing too fast. It affects the forelegs and results in deformation of the carpus or lower part of the leg. The treatment may include slowing down the growth by adjusting the type and amount of food and sometimes surgery is required. Most developmental disorders can be prevented by feeding the appropriate puppy food.

Infectious causes of lameness

Occasionally a young animal may get an infection in the bone (known as osteomyelitis) or within the joint (septic arthritis). These can both be very serious conditions that may need long-term treatment but it is important to try and find the cause first. The bacteria or fungus can spread through the blood or be introduced through an open or infected wound such as a dog or cat bite or open fracture.

Cancer

Although rare, cancer can unfortunately also affect young dogs. Cancer is a class of disease in which cells grow rapidly and uncontrollably. It can affect one part of the body or spread throughout the body. Again history is very important and several sets of X-rays may need to be taken to monitor the progression of the disease.

Take home message

There are many different causes of lameness in young dogs, some more serious than others. Finding the cause starts with the same basic work up, by the vet – a thorough history and clinical exam and then further diagnostics such as X-rays, CTs, also known as Cat Scans (nothing to do with the animal) or computed tomography scans, and possibly joint taps, which is where fluid is taken from the joint with a sterile needle and syringe. Monitoring the response to treatment is an important part of both the diagnosis and treatment of lameness in young dogs and it is really important to take the dog in for follow up examinations if necessary to prevent permanent damage. Some causes of lameness will resolve quickly and not have a permanent effect on the health of your dog whereas others will require lifelong treatment and management.  

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