Why is my cat limping?
There are many reasons why a cat might become lame, most of which are benign, but some of which are more serious.
First of all, is the lameness affecting one or more limbs? Then we need to know if it is a sudden onset (acute) lameness or something that has been coming on for a while (days, weeks or months which would be called “chronic”).
Has your cat been outside recently when they could have had an accident or been in a fight with another cat?
Are there any other signs such as more rapid breathing or pale gum colour. Do their nails appear normal or are the ends shredded? Shredded ends to nails can suggest your cat has been scrabbling around possibly during a fight or if they have been struck by a car. If there is any sign of breathing difficulties, pale gum colour or being really quiet and subdued, we would recommend that you call your veterinary surgeon immediately for further advice.
Is your cat still quite lively or more subdued than normal and trying to hide away in quiet, out of the way, places? This usually indicates that they are not feeling well at all or are feeling a bit shocked such as after a cat fight or being hit by a car.
If the lameness is acute, is your cat using the leg or is it being held off the floor or is it dragging and being held limply? Carefully check the affected limb. Be careful though - even the most mild mannered of cats may be tempted to strike out if you touch something that is suddenly painful!
There is a condition called arterial thromboembolism where a blood clot, usually from the heart, lodges in the arteries supplying the back legs and cuts off the blood supply to the hind legs. This happens very suddenly and with no warning usually. It produces acute paralysis of the hind legs together with extreme pain. Affected cats are usually howling and screaming. Obviously, this is an emergency situation and you must call your veterinary surgeon immediately to be seen, day or night.
Are there any swellings or obvious wounds? Sometimes wounds will be covered by hair that has been stuck together by body fluids. You can usually feel this by gently running your hands lightly over the limb. Is there any extra heat associated with the area? Cat fight wounds are probably the most common reason for painful, sometimes swollen, wounds on legs resulting in acute lameness. Whilst these would not normally be an immediate emergency, cat bite wounds very frequently become infected and produce abscesses, so you should have your cat examined by a vet within 24 hours ideally to determine if antibiotics are required.
Gently try to move the leg to flex and extend the joints. Does this seem to be painful? Does the leg appear to be moving correctly or does it appear to be at a different angle which might suggest a fracture or a dislocation? Cats appear remarkably good at tolerating even the extreme pain of fractures and dislocations and it’s not uncommon to find cats that have dragged themselves home, even over fences, with broken limbs! If there is any suspicion that there may be a fracture or a dislocation, you should contact your veterinary surgeon immediately.
If the lameness is chronic, how old is your cat? Cats that are older can get arthritis, just like us humans. Cats will often adapt their lifestyle to cope this so, over time, they simply become less active and stay lying down more. Maybe you’ve noticed that they aren’t grooming themselves as well as they used to, especially at their rear end? Maybe they haven’t been jumping up on things as much they used to? Just like humans though, they can get sudden worsening of the arthritis if they overdo things a bit, such as from jumping down off something that is a little too high for them and then suddenly, they are in more severe pain. Often, a sudden flare up of a chronic arthritis condition is the first sign that owners will be able to see that their cat has this painful condition. Cats are really good at hiding signs of discomfort and just try to get on with life. The good news is that, these days, we vets can do a lot to make your cat more comfortable and not have to endure arthritic pain which can give them their quality of life back again.
The take home message is that there are lots of possible causes of lameness, so if your cat is limping and you are not certain what the cause is, then you should contact your veterinary surgeon as soon as possible so they can make a positive diagnosis and give your cat any treatment they need.