Lameness in Your Older Dog

In a previous piece, we talked about some of the more likely reasons for a younger dog to start limping. If your older dog seems to have suffered a minor accident, he could conceivably have incurred a simple sprain or strain, but there are a number of other, more sinister, causes of lameness that could come into play for the aging pet. The doctor will want to see this patient sooner, rather than later, so that serious illness can be detected in its earliest stages.

Try to be brave while your pet is being examined. This can be quite difficult for humans. The doctor will have to—intentionally—elicit a pain response (crying out, wincing, attempting to bite me) in order to track down the source of the problem. That has a cruel ring to it, but it’s the way we’ll have to do our business until the dogs start talking. On the flip side, it’s not too unusual for the patient to have much more significant pain at home than what’s apparent in the exam room. As always, try to observe your pet closely as you prepare to depart for the clinic. Sometimes a piece of information from your home provides the key that is necessary to reach a rapid diagnosis. Reluctance for routine behaviors such as jumping onto the furniture, standing on the hind legs, and ascending or descending staircases could be very important clues.

The doctor will want to know whether this problem came on gradually or suddenly. Did it start yesterday, or has it been coming on for a couple of weeks? Months? Pain that begins slowly, particularly in an older dog, usually needs an x-ray. Arthritic pain begins slowly, often in the hips or elbows, and it’s particularly problematic for larger dogs. On the other hand, pain from bone cancer usually also develops slowly. Bone cancer is very aggressive and difficult to treat, so it’s much better if we can diagnose it as early as possible. Certain breeds and certain locations of the body are somewhat more prone to the development of this disease, so your doctor will be very insistent on x-rays under those circumstances. A diseased bone will break much more easily than a normal one, and this is occasionally how the cancer betrays its presence.
Does it seem like your pet is stiff and painful, or is she merely stumbling? Awkward feet might not be painful at all; they could be an indication of spinal cord disease or of whole-body weakness. If your dog comes down with a sudden case of weak and clumsy feet, you need to get to the doctor that day; certain spinal cord problems can escalate very rapidly. Dachshunds are particularly prone to catastrophic spinal disease, so owners of this breed need to be especially sensitive to the appearance of stumbling or dragging feet. Taking the right measures with a crippled dachshund might well save his life. For the best outcome, suspend all of his activities immediately and head for the emergency room.

Dr M.S. Regan