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A dog limping more when it's cold doesn't need to be fruit of your imagination-turns out, there is such a thing as dogs limping more when it's cold.  It's called "winter lameness" and it causes dogs to feel more stiff and achy as the temperature plummets. Veterinarian Dr. Ivana shares information about this orthopedic issue in dogs. 

They Call it "Winter Lameness" in Dogs 

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow – goes the famous Frank Sinatra song. For many folks, winter is the most beautiful time of the year. That is because we have coats, boots, hats, scarves, and mittens to stay warm and cozy when out and about, but what about our dogs? Is winter the best time of the year for them too?

Well, from frozen sidewalks and de-icing chemicals causing blisters on dog paws to annoying ice balls stuck between the dog's toes, the winter holds several dangers for dogs. Do not get me wrong, most dogs love snow, but they need some extra protection when it's snowing and freezing outside.

One widespread problem dogs experience during the cold months of the year is the so-called winter lameness

Winter lameness is a popular term that includes several issues that manifest with limping or lameness. Since the limping/lameness triggers are associated with cold weather and snow, the phenomenon is popularly termed winter lameness.

Winter lameness in dogs is a real thing.

Winter lameness in dogs is a real thing.

Causes of Winter Lameness in Dogs 

Your are therefore not imagining things if your dog seems to limp more when it is cold! There are several potential causes of winter lameness in dogs. Following is a list of several causes.

 Injured or Torn Muscles, Tendons, and Ligaments

Walking on a slippery surface and punching through ice or snow often results in injured or torn muscles, tendons, and ligaments. Some injuries are minor and self-limiting, but others, including tearing, are considered severe and require veterinary attention.

Simple walking on a slippery surface is enough to cause severe muscle strain. Slipping usually results in moderate strains of the hamstring muscles, quads, biceps, and triceps. Older dogs are at higher risk of sustaining muscle strains after slipping simply because their sudden balance-loss reflexes are weakened and decreased.

The sudden twisting and shearing caused by ice slips and falls can easily result in ligament and tendon injuries. Even without slipping, walking on uneven snowy surfaces with different densities triggers repetitive stress, which results in injuries.

 The tendons and ligaments supporting the digits are most frequently damaged. Punching through crusty snow usually ends up with a dog's Achilles tendon injury. Once again, older dogs with pre-existing spinal and joint issues are at higher risk of sustaining tendon and ligament injuries.

If your dog starts limping after walking on snow or ice, consider one of the diagnoses mentioned above as the potential culprit. Assessing the situation on your own can be challenging. Therefore, instead of waiting to see how the situation develops, be proactive: schedule a visit to the vet’s office and have your dog’s limping cause adequately diagnosed  and managed.

A Matter of Foot injuries

Although frequently overlooked and underestimated, foot injuries are quite common and, unless timely treated – quite severe. No matter how small and seemingly insignificant, all foot injuries in dogs are troubling and uncomfortable and eventually manifest with lameness.

A particularly frequent foot injury in dogs is caused by snow build-up between the toes. The snow catches on the hairs between the toes and keeps accumulating. 

This problem can be avoided by maintaining the hairs well-trimmed and applying protective creams (cooking oil, calendula cream, musher’s wax, Vaseline) over the feet before leaving the house, or more simply, spoiling your dog with a nice pair of doggy booties.

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Irritating de-icing chemicals (rock salt and calcium salts) can also cause foot injuries in the form of blisters and burns. Once again, a pair of booties prevents the problem.

 Alternatively, you can wash your dog’s paws upon returning home to rinse off the harmful chemicals. When washing the feet, it is advisable to use lukewarm water and antibacterial soap.

Finally, stepping on cold surfaces can cause painful pad cracks and stepping on ice fragments may lead to cuts. If left untreated, cracks and cuts can infect and cause additional complications. Booties and protective moisturizing creams and ointments minimize the risk of these foot injuries.

 Cases of Carpitis, Tarsitis, and Phalangitis

Stepping and leaping on uneven piles of snow stresses the joints, especially those located in the lower limbs. If the stress is minor and short, the chances of long-term consequences are low. On the other hand, if the stress is prolonged or repetitive, carpitis, tarsitis, and phalangitis are likely to occur.

 The term carpitis indicates inflammation of the carpal joint, the term tarsitis of the tarsal joint, and the term phalangitis – of the digits.

If a dog injures the joints of the front lower limbs, it compensatory overuses the hind limbs and vice versa. Therefore, regardless of which limb is affected initially, all limbs can potentially suffer the consequences.

Joint Exertion Due to Weight Gain

There is a widespread belief that dog parents should feed their dogs a little extra kibble during the winter months. That little extra food is believed to lead to little excess weight providing the dog with some extra layers of fat will keep the dog warm.

 Although there might be some truth behind this concept for outdoor dogs, this belief is nothing but a myth when it comes to home-kept dogs.

In fact, during the winter months, dogs get less exercise than usual. The lack of physical activity, combined with the extra kibble fed daily, leads to unnecessary weight gain.

 This is particularly dangerous in dogs with pre-existing orthopedic issues like hip and elbow dysplasia. The excess weight exerts extra pressure on the hips, elbows, or other diseased joints, and lameness is likely to occur. 

Even if the dog managed the situation and compensated successfully, its compensatory mechanisms would fail after the weight gain, and the limping will become evident.

Weight gain during the winter can put a strain on a dog's joints. 

Weight gain during the winter can put a strain on a dog's joints. 

A Word of Caution 

As already mentioned, booties help prevent most of the causes that lead to winter limping. However, the booties are beneficial as long as they are well-fitted and adequately used.

Namely, it should be noted that a dog may need differently sized booties for each foot. What is more, the booties must fit below the dewclaw. If they cover the dewclaw or irritate it, they may cause dewclaw inflammation.

Inadequately sized booties and booties that inflame the dewclaws instead of preventing injuries may actually cause them and result in limping. 

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