There are many reasons why a cat may be limping, from something mild to something severe.
In this Zoom call, Indiana small animal veterinarian Dr. Leslie Brooks discusses the most common reasons cat owners might see this and what to do if it happens. Fostering and behavioral specialist Liz Italia co-hosted the call.
Recorded: October 5th, 2020.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this call are those of the guest(s) and/or host(s) and may or may not reflect the views or opinions of My Lovely Feline.
Liz’s Cat Vito
To kick off the discussion, Leslie had Liz show her cat Vito, and they discussed his interesting walk, which involved walking on the hocks of his back legs. Walking on the hocks means the cat doesn’t walk on their feet but actually walking on the entire part of their leg up to the first joint. This is usually, but not always, a result of a cat being diabetic. These cats get a type of neuropathy that affects the nerves in the back legs and causes them to walk on their hocks. Other causes include kidney disease and neuromuscular disorders. The best way to diagnose the problem is by getting basic blood work and possibly following it up with X-rays.
In Liz’s case, Vito’s blood work was mostly normal, and the vet believed his mobility issues could be related to arthritis, muscle loss (because of age), or even the steroid he takes for inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), which can sometimes impact the ligaments.
Limping & Neurologic Disorders
Sometimes it’s hard to tell if your cat is limping because they are very good at disguising symptoms and pain. It’s also sometimes difficult to tell which leg is the problematic one, because again, cats can disguise it. Your first indication that there’s a problem could be your cat holding up the leg with the issue.
Differentiating limping from a neurologic disorder can be a challenge. Limping indicates pain in a limb or the back, or pain in a bone or joint or muscle, and signs could include:
- Favoring a particular leg
- Holding up the problematic leg
- Licking a leg frequently
- while holding up another leg and licking it a lot.
If a cat’s unable to use a leg because of a neurologic disorder, look for symptoms like:
- Dragging paws
- Feet stumbling behind them
- Legs crossing over each other
Reasons for Limping in Younger to Middle-Aged Cats
These are usually secondary to a bite wound or from stepping on something that punctured the leg. If a cat goes outdoors, the likelihood of injuries that result in an abscess increases. Many times, you won’t easily see the wound because of their fur, but you may notice an odor or even see some oozing. If your cat’s limping is from a suspected abscess, your vet will likely put them on a course of antibiotics.
#2 Fracture & Dislocation
Cats can break bones just like us, and fractures and hip dislocations are more common in kittens and younger cats who tend to be super active. Fractures can occur in older cats too, but it’s not as common.
#3 Sprains & Strains
Cats can limp from sprains and strains, which will not show up on an X-ray. If your vet suspects that’s the issue, they’ll typically put them on pain meds for a few days until the problem clears up.
For cats that go outside, they’re a risk of them stepping on a thorn and it getting stuck in their leg. This can cause irritation, an infection, or an abscess. It can be hard to see, again, because of their fur.
Reasons for Limping in Older Cats
Any kind of arthritis in any joint or spine can cause limping.
Cats can get cancer in their legs, joints, or bones.
#3 Diabetes, Kidney Disease, or Thyroid Disease
Any one of these can cause a change in their body’s metabolism and electrolyte imbalances that can cause issues in walking.
#4 Long Toe Nails
If claws are not properly trimmed, they may get too long, curve, and enter the paw pad. This can cause an infection, so it’s important to trim your cat’s nails frequently. If you can’t do it yourself, there are groomers and even mobile services that can come to your house and trim them for you.
Reasons for Limping at All Ages
#1 Blood Clot
If all of a sudden there’s a loss of functionality in one or both back legs and the cat can’t feel their legs, it’s most likely pulling their legs from a blood clot that traveled from the heart through the aorta and cut off the blood supply to the back legs. It’s called a saddle thrombus or thromboembolism and is most often seen in cats with underlying heart disease or a heart murmur, but not always. Although it’s more common in older cats, it can be seen in younger ones as well.
#2 Tail Injury
There’s a bundle of nerves at the base of the tail from the spinal cord that goes to the back legs, bladder, and colon. If a tail is caught or pulled for any reason, the nerves may get stretched, resulting in incontinence and an inability to use their back legs. They may need to be manually expressed to urinate because the nerves don’t work correctly. Sometimes they heal over time, and other times, the problem is irreversible.
#3 Pillow Paw aka Pododermatitis
This is an autoimmune condition where a cat’s immune system attacks the skin on the bottom of their paws. Their paws become covered with painful blisters. The condition is treated with steroids.
Uncommon Reasons for Limping
#1 Torn ACL
Although it’s more common in dogs, a cat can tear its ACL, a major ligament in the knee joint. In animals, it’s called the cranial cruciate ligament. It’s usually from a traumatic injury, like being hit by a car or getting their leg stuck in something, and in the process of struggling to get it out, they tear ligaments in their knee.
#2 Intervertebral Disc Disease
Again, more common in dogs, but this is when a cat gets a slipped disc and it bulges and presses on their spinal cord. It may cause pain, but it may also just give them difficulty in using their back legs.
#3 Patella Luxation
This occurs when the kneecap is dislocated. If it occurs frequently, they may be a candidate for surgery.
Diagnosing Limping in Cats
A vet will physically examine the cat and sometimes require X-rays to diagnose the issue fully. X-rays are used for bone and joint problems. After diagnostics, if the cause isn’t clear, a vet may put the cat on pain meds and possibly antibiotics to see if they improve. If the X-rays indicated arthritis, a vet might recommend putting the cat on joint supplements, which won’t heal arthritis, but slow down the progression.
Fractures are most often treated by splinting the limb. These need to be changed usually once a week or even more frequently if they’re still growing. Sometimes surgery might need to be done.
Many limping issues are treated with pain meds. The owner will also need to make accommodations to make it easier for the cat to get around, use the litter box, and access food and water.
Q: My cat came back in from outside and was limping, going up the steps one at a time. She was better the next day. Do you think she was stung by a bee?
Leslie: If it was that severe, she might have had a strain or a sprain. They can get swelling or have an allergic reaction from a bee sting, but I’m not sure that the bee sting alone would cause the limping.
Q: How do you wash out the litter box?
Leslie: Wash them out with warm water and dish detergent.
Liz: Stay away from anything that’s floral-scented, and look for products with cleaner ingredients.
Q: Why do cats get sick when they’re stressed?
Leslie: Stress decreases their immune system. Most cats already have feline herpes, or a kitty cold, in their system, and since their immune system can’t keep things in check, the herpes will flare, resulting in sneezing and a runny nose.
If your cat starts to limp and it seems to be uncomfortable, schedule an appointment with your vet so they can be examined. The sooner you know what’s causing the issue, the sooner you can treat them and help them feel better. While some things are more serious, many causes of limping can be addressed with antibiotics and pain meds.
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