Front leg limping in dogs is something that needs to be investigated by a veterinarian. Any time a dog has an abnormal gait, it is cause for concern as this is most likely a result of pain. There are many potential reasons for front leg limping in dogs. It is important to seek veterinary help to localize the area of pain and identify the cause before treatment can begin. Likely causes of front leg limping depend on the age, breed and activity level of your dog. These factors along with a good musculoskeletal exam and diagnostic imaging can help guide your veterinarian to the diagnosis.
Causes of Front Leg Limping in Dogs
Although not all inclusive, the most common causes of front leg limping are osteochondritis dissecans (OCD), panosteitis, elbow dysplasia, cancer arising from bone or cartilage, ligament or tendon injuries, spinal pain, and fractures.
Other common causes of front leg limping in dogs are toenail injuries and wounds or foreign body objects in the paw pads.
Osteochondritis dissecans (OCD) results from a developmental issue known as osteochondrosis, which results in a weakened joint cartilage. OCD occurs when a flap of cartilage is present in the joint causing pain on movement. This typically results in a lameness that gets worse with exercise. The most common areas for OCD lesions in the front leg are the shoulder and elbow. These lesions can also occur in the rear limbs.
If caught early, surgical management is favorable and usually involves arthroscopy to remove the flap of cartilage. Surgery cannot prevent the onset of DJD (degenerative joint disease), but it can significantly reduce the severity if performed before early. Lameness usually occurs between 3 and 10 months of age. Males tend to be more affected than females. Maintaining adequate nutrition and avoiding having an overweight puppy can help reduce the risk of this disease. Large breed, fast-growing puppies are also at increased risk. OCD is diagnosed with x-rays and synovial fluid analysis.
Elbow dysplasia is a hereditary developmental degenerative joint disease. It usually manifests in young, large-breed puppies between 4-6 months of age. Often the problem occurs in both front limbs. The lameness gets worse with exercise and affected dogs have an abnormal stance with the elbows turned out.
Secondarily to elbow dysplasia, the dog will develop DJD. Other sequelae of elbow dysplasia include fragmentation of the coronoid process (FCP), ununited anconeal process (UAP) of the ulna, or OCD. These conditions are diagnosed with x-rays, synovial fluid analysis, or exploratory surgery. Treatment of the primary cause is the same as for osteoarthritis. Surgical treatment is possible for the secondary problems of FCP, UAP and OCD. Correction of these secondary problems may help reduce the impact of degenerative joint disease that will develop.
Cancer can be another among the causes of front leg limping in dogs. There are several types of cancers that affect bones and joints. The most common are osteosarcoma and chondrosarcoma. Metastases from carcinomas elsewhere in the body and other sarcomas are also culprits for causing lameness. The most obvious sign of cancer is a swelling of the bone or joint.
Rule outs for this are fractures, soft tissue injuries, and wounds and abscesses. The first step is usually to x-ray the affected area. If cancer is suspected, a biopsy will probably be recommended to identify the exact type of cancer so that prognosis and treatment options can be determined.
Tendon strain is common in dogs that perform agility trials and other sports but can occur in any dog. The most common front leg tendon injuries occur with injury to tendons of the dog's shoulder such as the supraspinatus and biceps muscles in the shoulder. Bicipital tenosynovitis is an inflammation of the sheath of the biceps tendon as it attaches to the shoulder.
Supraspinatus tendinopathy is a group of conditions that usually leads to degeneration of the supraspinatus tendon and rotator cuff injuries. These conditions are hard to diagnose and are often a diagnosis of exclusion, meaning all other causes of lameness are ruled out first. X-rays often won't show anything unless the injury is chronic and DJD has already begun. MRI and ultrasound are better options for imaging of this condition. Acute injuries can be treated conservatively with anti-inflammatory drugs, laser therapy and rest.
Carpal hyperextension syndrome, or dropped carpus, is a condition caused by poor muscle tone or joint laxity in young puppies. This condition is self-limiting, meaning that the puppy will recover without treatment. Puppies that are allowed exercise tend to recover much faster than puppies that are confined. This condition does not normally lead to permanent pathology.
Canine panosteitis is an inflammation of the bone marrow of long bones in young growing dogs, usually between 5 and 18 months of age. German Shepherds have a higher predilection than other breeds and males are more often affected than females. Often these puppies will have a lameness that moves from one leg to the other. The dog will often be painful on palpation of the bone. This condition will resolve without treatment, pain management is often instituted until the condition subsides on its own. This may last up to two years of age.
Other Causes of Front Leg Limping in Dogs
Front leg limping in dogs can be caused by several other conditions. Other conditions that can cause front leg lameness in dogs include fractures of any of the dog's bones of the foreleg or foot, injuries to the toenail, wounds of the paw pad or other areas of the leg. Another cause for foreleg lameness is neck pain or injury to the cervical spine.
Many of the conditions causing lameness in the front leg can also occur in the rear legs. DJD and OCD commonly occur in the rear legs as well.
Your veterinarian will hopefully be able to determine the source of the pain with a physical exam and will be able to further diagnose the exact cause if needed with imaging.
About the Author
Dr. Samantha Bartlett is an associate veterinarian at Case Veterinary Hospital in Savannah, GA. She received her undergraduate degree in Biology from the University of Alabama at Birmingham and continued to get her DVM at Auburn University.
Before returning back to work in Savannah, Dr. Bartlett spent time as a veterinarian in the Florida Keys where she was able to learn about holistic medicine and gain more experience in feline medicine – two fields that hold great interest for her. Dr. Bartlett is also working to broaden her skills in dentistry.
Dr. Bartlett shares her home with her dog, Boone and her three cats, Isabelle, Amelia and Oswald. In her free time, she enjoys walking the beach, paddleboarding and lazy days with a good book.