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How to Watch a Dog for Stiff or Limp Movements

Many canine conditions cause stiff or limp body movements. Many people think these are a normal part of a dog’s aging process, or that they aren’t a symptom worth getting checked out. While mobility issues are part of getting older, many younger dogs also can experience stiff or limp movements. To notice if there is a problem, you should watch for signs of stiffness or limping such as problems walking, reluctance to do activities they used to, and difficulty getting up.


Recognizing Common Signs of Stiffness or Limping

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    Look for a limp gait. A common sign of distress is a limp gait. Your dog may limp as they walk on their paws. The dog may also hold up one of their legs. The limp movement may be in multiple legs, so the dog may walk on different legs at different points during the day.[1]

    • Usually when a dog suffers from a limp gait they will favor placing their weight on certain legs.
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    Check for skeletal problems. When your dog’s legs are lame, you may notice problems with their bones. If one of the back legs is lame, the dog’s pelvis may drop when they step, but then rise when the leg lifts. If both back legs are affected, then the dog’s weight will shift forward.[2]

    • You may notice that the bones or joints in the dog’s legs, hips, or back are abnormal in size or shape.
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    Notice any reluctance to do activities. Limp and stiff body movements may result in your dog not wanting to do the same activities they used to enjoy all the time. Your dog may stop jumping around or refuse to climb stairs.[3]

    • If the dog does climb stairs, they may have noticeable trouble, stumble, or even have one leg that is limp when they are finished.
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    Watch for stiffness when your dog is getting up. You may notice that your dog is having trouble standing. They may be stiff all over or some of their legs may appear limp or lame. It may take your dog a long time to stand due to this.[4]

    • Often, the dog will limp or have trouble walking for a few moments after they get up.
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    Notice a stiff neck. Stiff necks in dogs may point to an underlying medical condition. When your dog has a stiff neck, they may arch their backs or move their nose towards the ground. The dog will probably not want to move their head from side to side or turn around.[5]

    • The muscles around the neck may be very tense or start showing tremors.
    • The dog may refuse to eat because it is difficult to lower their head to eat from the bowl.
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    Notice any aggressive body language. Sometimes your dog will go completely rigid and stop moving. Their entire body may be tense. A dog’s face may also be stiff or tense, giving them a furrowed brow look. The dog’s mouth may be tense and rigid. The tail may also be stiff and held low or parallel to their body.[6]

    • This may not be due to any sickness or ailment, but be body language in response to something that makes them nervous or upset.


Recognizing Risk Factors

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    Think about your dog’s age. Many older dogs experience mobility problems. This includes stiffness after lying or sleeping and difficulty getting up. Older dogs may slow down when they walk, and they may not do the same activities they used to.[7]

    • Though these are common symptoms in senior dogs, you should still have your dog checked out by a vet. Your vet may be able to figure out a way to ease any pain.
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    Determine if there is an immediate reason for the mobility problems. Sometimes, there is an immediate and obvious reason that your dog is limping. For example, maybe they cut their paw and it is healing. They may have also done vigorous exercise where that has left them bruised or sore. Even a dog having nails that are too long may lead to limping.[8]

    • If your dog has recently had surgery, a medical procedure, or an injury this could result in mobility problems.
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    Consider the dog’s breed. Some breeds of dogs have a higher chance of developing hip and joint problems than others. These problems, such as arthritis or dysplasia, can cause limping or stiffness of the joints or limbs. Some breeds with common joint and limb problems are:[9]

    • Dachshund
    • Labrador Retrievers
    • Golden Retrievers
    • German Shepherds
    • Rottweilers
    • Great Danes
    • Mastiffs


Seeking Medical Treatment

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    Take your dog to the vet. If you notice any problems with your dog’s legs or gait, you should take them to the vet. Your vet can do a physical exam and figure out exactly what is wrong with your dog. Limping, stiffness, and lameness are non-specific signs that may point to multiple conditions.[10]

    • Even if you think your dog may not have a severe condition, you should still take them to the vet. You want to make sure that your dog is okay.
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    Determine the cause of the lameness. Dogs may experience limp or stiff movements for a variety of reasons. Because limp or stiff movement is a symptom of many conditions, it is difficult to figure out the reason without a physical exam by a vet. Common causes for stiff or limp movement include:

    • Arthritis[11]
    • Hip or elbow dysplasia
    • Obesity
    • Vertebrae disease
    • Joint disease[12]
    • Pinched neck nerve[13]
    • Torn ACL[14]
    • Sprains, bruises, or cuts on the foot pad[15]
    • Trauma
    • Infection[16]
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    Get your dog tested. When you take your dog to the vet, the vet will perform various tests to figure out what is causing your dog’s mobility issues. They need to figure out if it’s a muscle and skeletal problem, a problem with the brain, or an internal problem.[17]

    • The vet will probably order x-rays, CT scans, or MRIs. They may also get samples of joint fluid, along with tissue and muscle samples.
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    Treat the underlying cause. The treatment of your dog’s mobility problems will depend on what is causing it. It may be as simple as making your dog lose weight to take weight and pressure off joints and limbs. Your vet may also prescribe pain medication or steroids to help your dog move better.[18]

    • In severe cases, your dog may need to undergo surgery to fix the cause of the problem.


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