What are Lameness?
Lameness isn’t an illness, rather it is a symptom of an illness or injury. Once the cat owner notices their cat limping, it’s important to get the right diagnosis so the cat doesn’t develop permanent muscle or nerve disorders.
A cat who is unable to walk, run, or jump normally may be considered lame. The cat may be in obvious pain and the affected limb may look abnormal. While cats are generally able to land upright when they jump or fall, it is possible for them to suffer limb injuries which result in lameness. Some cats may develop lameness as the result of an illness.
Symptoms of Lameness in Cats
Cats are experts in hiding signs of illness or injury. As an injury or illness worsens, however, the cat will be unable to hide its pain, making symptoms easier to spot:
- Lessened physical activity (jumping or running)
- More vocalization than normal
- Refusing to be touched or handled
- Decreased interactions with others
- Lessened appetite
- Favors the affected limb, obviously limping
- Stops to rest while walking
- Unable to walk
- Acts aggressively
- Swelling in the affected limb
- Refuses to bear weight on affected limb
Causes of Lameness in Cats
It’s not only jumps or falls from high areas that lead to a cat becoming lame. Other causes can include:
- Ligament injuries
- Broken bones
- Myositis or inflamed muscle
- Bites from other animals
- Broken claw
- Infection of the claw bed
- Cut in pad of foot or on leg
- Footpad disease
- Object embedded in the foot
- Snake bite
- Injury to spinal disc or vertebrae
- Nerve damage
- Developmental or congenital conditions
- Joint condition (may be inflammatory)
- Infections, such as calicivirus
- Progressive polyarthritis (immune system disorder)
- Cancer of the bone
- Metabolic disease such as diabetes
- Fungal infection
- Bad nutrition
- Minor stroke
Diagnosis of Lameness in Cats
The vet relies on their patients’ owners to describe just what is happening to the cat. Using the owner's’ observations, the vet gives the cat a full physical exam, looking for signs of the lameness, as well as what is causing the condition.
During the exam, the vet may find obvious causes, such as a foreign object embedded in the footpad. Other underlying causes may not be as easy to detect. This is when the vet gives one of several kinds of tests to the cat:
- Blood testing (looking for infectious or immune system diseases)
- Removing joint fluid with a fine needle
- CT scan or MRI
- Neurological exam
- Myelograph (injecting dye along the spinal cord and taking a special X-ray)
- Electromyography (recording electrical activity of affected muscle tissue)
- Endoscopic exploratory surgery
Treatment of Lameness in Cats
In addition to treating the underlying cause of a cat’s lameness, vets want to manage the pain the cat is feeling. They will start with a less invasive treatment before moving to a more invasive pain treatment if the less invasive options don’t work.
The first option is pain medications, which range from nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications, which reduce joint or ligament inflammation. While the cat is taking this medication, the vet will be watching the cat closely to ensure it doesn’t develop kidney, liver, or gastrointestinal damage. Along with this form of treatment, the vet may prescribe cage rest.
If NSAIDS don’t work, the vet will prescribe opioid pain medications, such as tramadol, buprenorphine or butorphanol. These medications are reserved for more acute pain. The cat can take oral medications or receive injections of this medication.
Chondroprotectants are drugs that protect the cartilage that surrounds the joint. These medications are reserved for cats diagnosed with osteoarthritis as they work to slow degradation of the cartilage in the affected limb. Again, these medications are given orally or as injections.
Complementary treatments may pain relief to the cat. These include chiropractic treatments, acupuncture, and physical therapy. Laser therapy may also be helpful. These treatments are intended to increase physical comfort to the cat as it works to return to a more normal function. Other treatments can include massage and dietary changes.
If the cat has a congenital condition that limits the use of the limb or causes significant pain, the vet may suggest surgery to the cat’s owner.
Recovery of Lameness in Cats
Depending on the cause of a cat’s lameness and it’s severity, along with the method of treatment and follow-up care, the affected cat can generally recover. For cats affected by osteoarthritis, their medication will help to slow the progress of the disease as well as offer some pain relief. If the arthritic cat is also overweight, a change in cat food that allows it to lose the extra weight can also lead to more significant relief of pain and lameness.
For cats diagnosed with osteoarthritis, it will be necessary to take pain relieving medications for the rest of its life. Regular veterinary follow-ups will also help improve quality of life for the pet.
Cat foods that contain a higher amount of Omega 3 and 6 (fatty acids) can also provide a small amount of pain relief by improving the health of affected joints.
Lameness Questions and Advice from Veterinary Professionals
My cat has been limping randomly for about two weeks, he seems fine, he's eating normally, but up until last night he didn't go outside which is unusual for him. He's not currently limping but it definitely seems like something is up.
There are numerous different causes for periodic lameness in cats. Due to these possible different causes, it would be best to have Roger checked by her Veterinarian as I am unable to suggest a cause without examining him. Ligament injury, dislocation, bone tumours, arthritis are all possible causes. Regards Dr Callum Turner DVM
My cat has been lame for 4 days now and i cannot find the cause other than her leg, i got home from work one day and she was being very strange. My cat is very nice and passive so she doesn't bite which is why i hadn't known until i picked her up. She's been limping and prefers to stay laying down and i am very concerned. One of her legs is limp and when i moved it around to see if it was the problem she got very agitated and annoyed and started meowing. She's been eating okay, and she purrs when i get home but does not move often and I've had to help her into the litter box several times now. She also refrains from cleaning her paw of the affected leg. Is my best option to get her evaluated or just wait till she heals? I have no idea what caused this since we live alone.
Our cat is indoors only and recently in the past week started limping and not wanting to bear her full weight on her right front leg. It has gotten noticeably worse the past few days. Cats are notorious for having high pain tolerance and hiding their pain. Therefore if your cat is showing signs of discomfort and pain involving her limb then I would recommend having your vet check her over so she doesn't suffer by hiding or undermining her pain. We are taking our cat to the vet tomorrow after a week of limping that has gotten worse. If we find out anything that may be of help to you then I will pass it along, but I truly do recommend taking your furbaby to be checked out. ~April
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