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Gait abnormalities in dogs are not at all uncommon and can derive from a vast array of conditions – some orthopedic and other neurologic in nature. 

Regardless of the underlying cause, a dog with an abnormal gait requires veterinary attention and proper treatment. Abnormal gaits are painful for the dog and concern for the owner.

In this article, veterinarian Dr. Ivana will explain the term gait and go over the normal canine gaits. 

Then we will go into detail on some abnormalities in dog gaits and how they can provide a picture of what is wrong with their legs or other body parts. Finally, we will link some typical abnormal gaits with their respective conditions. 

What is Gait in Dogs?

A dog’s gait is defined as the pattern of repetitive leg motion during walking, trotting, running, and galloping. Dogs use different gaits depending on how fast they move.

Interestingly, some dogs prefer certain gaits, and others are inclined to specific gait types due to conformation. This is particularly true for dogs with long legs and short bodies or dogs with long bodies and short legs.

The gait is an important factor when evaluating the dog's overall health and wellbeing, especially if testing for orthopedic and neurological medical conditions.

trotting dog gait

A Yorkshire terrier trotting 

The Normal Gaits in Dogs 

It is hard to determine the presence of gait abnormalities if you are not familiar with the normal gaits. Therefore, we will shortly review the normal types of gait in dogs.

Gait 1: The Walk

Walk represents the slowest walking pattern and is marked by having three paws on the ground at all times. 

Basically, each foot lifts one at a time, following a regular patent. The walk is also the safest and most stable gait.

Gait 2: The Amble

Amble is a fancy word for fast walking. During amble, the left front and left rear leg move as a pair as opposed to the right front and right rear leg. 

They leave the ground at the same time but hit it again one after the other.

Gait  3: The Pace

The pace is a really fast type of walking. During a pace, the legs on one side (left with left and right with right) move exactly as a pair and do everything simultaneously – they move backward and forward at the same time.

Gait  4: The Trot

The trot is faster than the previous gaits and is characterized by the simultaneous movement of the opposite front and hind limbs. 

During the trot, the dog's body weight shifts between the diagonal pair of legs, and at a brief point of time, all legs are above the ground.

Gait 5: The Canter

Also known as a lope, canter is a fast gait in which the ground is first hit by one rear leg, then the other rear leg and the opposite front leg at the same time, and in the end, the other front leg.

Gait  6: The Gallop

As the name suggests, the gallop is the fastest gait, and its hallmark is the relatively long timeframe in which all four paws are suspended in the air. 

The pattern includes – left front limb, right front limb, then there is a period with no paws on the ground followed by the left hind limb, and then the right hind limb hitting the surface.

Signs of an Abnormal Gait in Dogs 

There are many symptoms of abnormal gait in dogs. Some are striking and can be seen from a distance, while others are more subtle and require careful observation.

 Also, some symptoms develop slowly over a prolonged period of time, while others occur all of a sudden with no previous warning signs.

Here is a list of some of the most common abnormal gait symptoms in dogs:

  • Continuous or intermittent lameness
  • Carrying a limb
  • Inability to walk
  • Arching the back while walking
  • Painful and stiff walking
  • Limb incoordination
  • Skipping a stride
  • Standing a wide stance
  • Loss of movement control
  • Lowering of the neck and head
  • Loss of balance
  • Stumbling and knuckling
  • Weight shifting and side favoring
  • Decreased walking speed and pauses
  • Inability to extend the legs during walking.

These signs are red flags and, if present, require a visit to the vet's office. Keep in mind that they can occur alone, combined, or in conjunction with other non-gait-related signs and symptoms such as appetite changes, mood swings, decreased energy, etc.

What are the Different Abnormal Gaits in Dogs?

Understanding the different abnormal gaits can be complicated. Even if your dog is doing them, it is hard for pet owners to establish which one is present and what it could mean.

To make things simpler, we will explain some common abnormal gaits and give possible reasons for their development.

Abnormal Gait 1: Overt Lameness

Overt lameness occurs when the dog avoids putting weight on one particular limb.

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 This type of abnormal gait is the simplest one to spot and represents a telltale sign of dysfunction. 

The most common reasons for overt lameness are issues with weight-bearing joints in the affected limb, for example, hip, pelvis, ankle, knee, etc. 

On rarer occasions, the issue can be linked with the spine or the limb's nerves.

Abnormal Gait 2: Head Bobbing

Head bobbing is defined as an exaggerated up and down movement of the head while walking. It is usually associated with front leg lameness. 

A dog with head bobbing is also likely to manifest excessive arching of the back and neck. 

If you are careful enough, you can establish which front leg is the issue – just pay attention to which side the dog's head comes closer to the ground.

Abnormal Gait  3: Side Bending

The side bending gait is easiest to spot when watching the dog from the front. A dog that side bends will have its hind legs swing either more to the left or more to the right.

 The side bending gait is usually a sign of pain and stiffness within the hip joint, unilateral spinal issues, and injuries of the Achilles tendons.

Abnormal Gait 4: Lowered Head

If the dog keeps its head low and instead of raising the head, it simply rolls the eyes up, it probably means there is cervical pain. 

The issue is more pronounced during walking than during sitting. If you are not sure whether your dog is keeping the head low or just walking funny, you can use a treat to provoke a head raise.

Abnormal Gait 5: Nail Dragging

Dragging the nails is easy to spot as there will be a striking sound while the dog moves, especially when walking on pavement or similar surfaces. 

This abnormal gait indicates a medical issue with the rear leg. A dog that is nail dragging will have the nails on the hind legs short and damaged.

Abnormal Gait  6: Bunny Hopping

The bunny hopping gait got its name for the distinctive way of moving the back legs. Namely, a dog practicing the bunny hopping gait moves both rear legs as one and at the same time. 

The bunny hopping gate is a telltale sign of hip dysplasia.

Abnormal Gait  7: Tail Swinging to One Side

Tail swinging is a characteristic gait indicating a pain in the rear legs and pelvic area. In general, the tail swings away from the painful area.

 Namely, if the issue is on the left, the tail will swing to the right, and if the problem is on the right, the tail will go to the left.

Abnormal Gait  8: Knuckling

Knuckling is used to describe a gait in which the dog walks on the top of the paws (similarly to how gorillas walk). 

Knuckling is a telltale sign of neurological issues. The gait is most commonly linked with spinal cord abnormalities, like, for example, disc hernia.

Abnormal Gait 9: Pacing

The popular term for the pacing gait is camel walk. Pacing is a typical sign of physical exhaustion and is a relatively rare gait in canines. 

Pacing is not always an abnormal gait. Namely, overweight dogs may pace instead of trot. 

However, pacing can also be a sign of a medical issue with the hind legs. During pacing, the front and back leg of the same side move simultaneously and as opposed to the front and back leg of the other side.

Diagnosis and Treatment of Gait Abnormalities in Dogs

To diagnose an abnormal gait, the veterinarian needs to observe how the dog moves. Following the observation, the vet will perform a thorough physical exam and then focus on more detailed neurological and orthopedic evaluations.

Based on the initial findings, the veterinarian is likely to recommend additional tests and diagnostic procedures – ranging from something as simple as blood analysis to something as complex as MRIs and CT scans.

The treatment depends on the underlying issue. Some issues are more severe and require immediate and aggressive treatments strategies, while others are benign and transient.

Luckily, in dogs, the most common cause of gait abnormalities is muscular injuries or, in simpler words, strains. Strains can be managed with cage rest (no unnecessary activity for 48 hours), cooling the painful area, and massaging the injury.

However, each case is different and requires an individually tailored approach. Let the vet explain your dog’s diagnosis and give advice on what they believe is the best treatment approach. 

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