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feline health problems

Why your cat is limping and what you can do about it

Common causes behind your cat’s lameness, and how cat owners can help their cats meow with joy, not pain

Updated October 30, 2020

Created By

Kaitlyn Arford,
cat licking paw

📸 by zaimoku_woodpile

Why is my cat limping?

Watching your four-legged friend limp can be scary as a pet parent. Lameness can be caused by an injury, like a broken bone or a joint dislocation.

But the cause of your cat’s lameness could be difficult to nail down if it’s a torn ligament, soft tissue injury, or due to nerve damage. Infections like abscesses may appear as swellings under the skin and on the paw pads.

The most common reasons your cat is limping

  • Arthritis.
  • Hip dysplasia or loose hips. This is rare but more likely in heavy-boned cats like Maine Coons.
  • Patellar luxation. This is a dislocation of the kneecap.
  • Neurological diseases.  Lumbosacral disease or degeneration can affect a cat’s ability to walk.
  • Ingrown toenails. These may be hard to see on long-haired cats like Maine Coons and Persians
  • Cancer. Bone tumors, injection site sarcomas, and lymphoma are among the cancers that can cause cats to limp (especially in older cats).
  • Broken bones.
  • Foreign bodies. These are things like glass or outdoor hazards/grass awns that can get embedded in cats’ paws.
  • Infections. Bug bites or cuts can lead to infection.
  • Other illnesses. Diabetes, nerve damage, and progressive polyarthritis (immune system disorder) can all lead to limping.
  • Fungal infections.
  • Poor nutrition.

Symptoms of lameness

If your cat is limping, you may notice some of the following signs:

  • Stiffness
  • Swelling or inflammation
  • Lumps and bumps
  • Bleeding
  • Refuses to bear weight on an affected limb
  • Refuses to be touched or held
  • Less physical activity
  • Lesser amount of jumping or running
  • Lessened or lack of appetite
  • Obvious limp
  • Lethargy
  • Signs of trauma
  • Avoiding stairs
  • Loss of muscle mass
  • Panic when touched
  • Aggression
  • Unable to walk or stand
  • Loss of muscle mass around the affected limb

First aid for cat limping in non-emergencies

Most of the time, you’ll need to see a veterinarian to figure out why your cat is limping. But before your appointment, you can check for cuts, broken nails, and bleeding. You need to keep your cat indoors.

You shouldn’t let your cat go outside if they are limping. Your cat has a higher likelihood of becoming more injured in the great outdoors, so keep them indoors until you see a veterinarian.

If your cat is bleeding, apply pressure and wrap their leg/foot in a bandage. Do not put the bandage on too tight, as this can cause circulation to be cut off to the leg and lead to further damage. It is always best to check with your vet first and only put a bandage on if you can get to your vet within 24 hours. If you find foreign bodies between the toes, clean the wound carefully without harming your cat. Only use warm, running water to clean, not hydrogen peroxide or rubbing alcohol.

When it’s time to seek veterinary care

Call your vet immediately if your cat is limping and:

  • The limp does not improve on its own within 24 hours.
  • You notice your cat having accidents around the house.
  • Your cat is refusing to eat when they typically have a healthy appetite.
  • You discover any open wounds, punctures, or bites.
  • Limping is paired with fever, difficulty breathing, or pain when touched.
  • Your cat seems to be having trouble sleeping.

How veterinarians diagnose lameness in cats

Vets will give your cat a full physical exam to look for signs of lameness and to identify the underlying cause of lameness. They will talk to you about any behavioral changes you’ve seen, so write down your cat’s symptoms as you see them before the appointment.

They may find obvious causes of trauma, like foreign bodies embedded in the paw pad. If it’s an ingrown nail, veterinarians will trim the nail, clean the wound, and likely prescribe a course of antibiotics. If it’s a wound, they may clip some hair, clean it, and flush the area.

If the cause isn’t obvious, vets will need to do further testing. X-rays are the most common test they will do to determine the cause of limping. If an x-ray does not give the answer, they may have to resort to more complicated tests, such asCT scans, MRIs, or ultrasounds. They may even need to do blood testing to look for infectious diseases or immune system diseases.

Veterinarians may complete a neurological exam if they suspect the cause is neurological.

How vets treat lameness in cats

How your cat’s lameness is treated really depends on the diagnosis. Vets can help manage the pain they are feeling by prescribing your cat a pain medication while you are waiting for answers, though.

The first step is to create a treatment plan to relieve your cat’s pain. Vets may administer pain medication, antibiotics, or anti-inflammatory medication. Your cat may receive oral medication or injections. In the case of a broken bone, dislocation, or severe wound, your cat may need surgery.

Your vet will likely prescribe cage rest, so the cat doesn’t harm their injury further or put pressure on an injury. They may recommend physical therapy to help maintain muscle strength in the case of arthritis. Another treatment plan may include recommending that your cat lose weight so there’s less pressure on their joints. Vets could suggest a change in diet, which may include switching to a food that supports joint health.

How you can help your cat recover from limping at home

As a pet parent, you just need to keep your cat as comfortable as possible. Your cat will appreciate lots of cuddles and compliments! Always follow your veterinarian’s recommendations and take your cat for follow-up appointments as needed.

Your cat may be put on cage rest, but otherwise keep them inside. You may need to administer pain medication, antibiotics, or anti-inflammatory medicines.

How to get a cat to the vet with broken bones

If you think your cat has a broken bone, start with being as gentle as possible. Too much movement will hurt them, so try to keep your cat as still as possible.

It’s best to transport them in a cat carrier. Put a blanket or shirt inside the carrier that the cat can cuddle up in. Then, entice them with a treat to get in the carrier. Gently support the cat’s hips and shoulders as you lift them into the carrier so they don’t further hurt themselves, or you.

If you don’t have a cat carrier, place them on a flat surface (like cardboard). If your cat doesn’t like being touched and tries to run, wrap them in a blanket or shirt.

How to tell if cat is in pain

Just because your cat isn’t showing pain, doesn’t mean they aren’t in pain. Cats will often hide pain because it’s a sign of weakness and they want to appear strong to potential predators. The more time you spend with your cat, the easier it is to tell that something’s wrong. Generally speaking, if your cat is hiding, not eating their normal amount, crying out more, or not doing the things they typically like to do, it could be a sign they are in pain.