Why is My Dog Limping But Showing No Sign of Pain?

Dog limping no pain
Why is my dog limping with no pain?

For many of us, pets are part of the family and we treat them like so. This is especially true for dogs, who often find themselves tagging along on cross-country road trips to see long-distance relatives during the holidays, vacations camping in national parks, and to neighborhood barbeques.

A sudden or gradual case of limping is a common concern for dog-owning families who associate any immobility of legs as a sign of severe pain. In most cases, limping is caused by a thorn in the paw, a small stone between toes, injuries or even elbow problems. Some of these can be solved at home while serious causes such as fractures must be checked by the veterinarian.

Many will attempt to diagnose the issue themselves or at least investigate the dog’s level of discomfort by running their hands down and around the front or back leg they are limping on.

While this can be dangerous – not just for the dog, but also the owner who could be in danger of being bitten – if done with care and lack of intense pressure, it’s a judgment call of the owner.

It can be even more puzzling when you attempt to find the area of discomfort and find that their dog shows no signs of pain when touched. However, many vets and dog trainers alike will tell you that just because a limping dog shows no signs of pain doesn’t mean they aren’t experiencing a painful sensation.

In fact, dogs are acute to handling and adjusting to pain, which can hinder them from finding the care they need more quickly.

Veterinarians advise dog-owners to bring their playful pooch in any time limping occurs, even without signs of pain, and especially if the limping persists longer than a day or two.

Signs Your Dog is In Pain

A dog may accommodate tooth pain by eating their kibble at a slower rate, dragging each piece out of the bowl one by one, or even choose to skip meals and live off scraps.

Likewise, a dog may adapt to pain in their leg or paw by limping, even slightly. The canine’s ability to hide or adapt to pain can confuse dog-owners, as it seems their furry friend is fine, albeit walking a little funny.

However, the opposite could be true. There are a few signs you can look for in your dog to evaluate their level of pain. Dogs express discomfort in many ways and not all dogs are alike. Just as some humans may have a higher threshold for pain, so too can dogs. Keep this in mind when watching for these signs:

Whining

Whining can also be a sign of stress, anxiety or excitement. Typically whining from pain will be accompanied with limping, gnawing or biting at an area or body part that is bothering them, or being immobile.

You’ll know when your pet is whining as a result of being excited because it is associated with jumping and/or a wagging tail, while anxiety or stress-induced whining will involve yawning, pacing, a stiff low-hanging tail, and/or the ears being held back.

Lethargy

Veterinarians will often recommend a visit when canines are acting lethargic. Lethargy could be described as the canine equivalent of human depression. Our beloved pets are active beings, even the ones who are typically lower energy, enjoy and seek out exercise and activity.

And so, when your furry friend is not enticed by a walk, their toy, treats, or even to get up from where they are laying, chances are they’re either in emotional or physical pain. Lethargy will also be associated with a disinterest in eating and drinking.

Panting

Typically, we see our pooches pant after a long game of fetch in the hot sun. This is because panting is a dog’s main way of regulating body temperature. With very little sweat glands – especially compared to their human owners – dogs utilize the respiratory system to rid of heat. Panting, however, is also a sign of pain.

Look for signs of panting when your dog has not finished a heart-pumping exercise or come in from outdoors on a summer’s day, this should be especially notifying to you if the panting occurs alongside trembling.

Listlessness or agitation

If Fido is pacing back and forth this is more likely a sign of discomfort than boredom. Additionally, during downtime in your home together, see if you notice them moving from one room to another frequently as this is another sign of being agitated.

Higher heart rate

Just like the human body will attempt to protect itself from pain or even the anticipation of pain by initiating adrenaline, the canine body does the same.

A normal heart rate for dogs should be between 60 to 140 beats per minute. You can ascertain your canine companion’s heart rate at home by pressing your hand to their chest to feel the heart beats while counting.

Reluctance to be touched or pet

As social creatures, dogs love to be loved on. While some are partial to belly rubbing, others prefer a booty scratching, but all of them love your attention.

You’ll know your pet is agitated when they avoid an outstretched hand or calls to be touched. This will be especially true if they pull or cower away from you when your attempt to touch their front legs or back legs when limping is involved.

Causes of a Limping Front or Back Leg

Either front leg limping or back leg limping could be the result of something as little as a thorn or minuscule pebble wedged uncomfortably between a dog’s paw pads; sometimes it’s more serious and will require a visit to the vet for further diagnosis.

Other than foreign items lost in front paws, front leg limping is also associated with:

  • Elbow dysplasia
  • Bone fractures
  • Dislocation of joints
  • Infection as the result of a recent injury
  • Injured tendons
  • Torn ligaments
  • Arthritis (usually as a result of limping)

Back leg limping involves many of the same issues associated with a dog’s lameness in its front legs, with some variation, such as:

  • Dislocated Kneecap
  • Hip dysplasia (common in larger breeds)
  • Cushing’s disease
  • Diabetes
  • Ruptured anal gland
  • Degenerative myelopathy (a disease that corrodes the spinal cord)

While any of these health hazards could be affecting your canine companion, you’ll never really have an assured answer to why your pet is limping but not expressing distress or pain until you gain the opinion of a veterinarian.

Should I take my dog to the vet for their front leg or back leg limping?

Many of us may wonder: If my pet doesn’t seem to be in pain, is a visit to the local vet necessary?

As always, you know your dog better than anyone else and so only you can answer this question. However, as has been discussed, even animals who show no pain when touched could be in pain, even potentially suffering from an undiagnosed disease or another serious health issue.

Before you visit the vet, however, you can perform your own physical examination to determine the potential harmlessness or severity of the situation.

Diagnosis

It’s possible that you haven’t witnessed your pet express pain when touched because you haven’t found the area that’s causing their discomfort and therefore making them limp. Try any or all of these suggestions to better understand why your favorite hound is limping.

Check your dog’s paws

Let’s talk a little bit about your favorite walking buddy’s paws. Dog’s paw pads are amazingly adaptive; they regulate body temperature, they harden to adjust to terrain, they protect them from blisters caused by heat and frostbite from snow, they even have their own built-in bacteria that helps fight infections.

However, there is a part of the canine foot that is not as hardened to the harshness of the outside world and you may have noticed it when grooming or cutting nails.

The tender, soft areas between a dog’s toes are protected enough by the surface of the foot that they don’t have as many of the protective qualities as the paw pads.

Even the smallest piece of debris could become wedged here and cause the dog to limp. If your dog has long hair, it could even be matted fur that’s packed itself into the crevices of the dog’s toes.

Additionally, it could be an issue with their nails. We all know a cracked nail or hangnail can cause us discomfort.

This should be the first thing you check before making an appointment with the vet. It’s an easy fix and typically doesn’t require a medical or animal-handling degree to remove a foreign item from the paw, especially if you have someone to help you keep the dog calm and held down while searching through this notoriously sensitive area.

Practice caution

Animals who are in pain are more likely to be agitated and therefore more likely to bite. Yes, even you, their beloved owner, could be bitten. It’s important to know that a dog who bites is not necessarily aggressive or dangerous, but merely trying to protect themselves from further discomfort. (Compare it to how you may flinch or even swat at someone or something that’s attempting to touch a physical injury.)

  1. In order to avoid being bitten, it’s important to be cautious when trying to locate the area causing the dog to limp.
  2. Ask for help and properly restrain the dog, but not so much that they are increasingly fearful or stressed.
  3. Calm them by speaking to them in a soothing voice and petting them gently.
  4. Through the process of elimination, find the problem area or limb
  5. While practicing caution, gently run your hand up the limb they’ve been limping on.
  6. For front leg limping, you may want to rub your pet’s chest to help them stay calm and show trust by keeping your hand in a place that they can see it.
  7. For back leg limping, you can spend extra time gently touching around the tail area, and also on the top of the lower back.

Keep a mental log

If the front leg or back leg limping has just begun, make a conscious decision to pay more attention to their limping, especially if it seems to come and go. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Do they limp after activity?
  • Do they struggle with jumping or climbing stairs?
  • Are they more or less active since the limping has been noticed?
  • If they are back leg limping, are they also suffering from diarrhea?
  • Have they always been sensitive about their paws (be it front or back) being touched?

The answers to all these questions will help you better understand why your dog is limping yet showing no visible signs of pain.

Sources and references

Dr. Winnie
About Dr. Winnie 344 Articles
My name is Dr. Winnie. I earned a Bachelor of Science in Psychology from Duke University, a Masters of Science in Biology from St Georges University, and graduated from the University of Pretoria Veterinary School in South Africa. I have been an animal lover and owners all my life having owned a Rottweiler named Duke, a Pekingese named Athena and now a Bull Mastiff named George, also known as big G! I'm also an amateur equestrian and love working with horses. I'm a full-time Veterinarian in South Africa specializing in internal medicine for large breed dogs. I enjoy spending time with my husband, 2 kids and Big G in my free time. Author and Contribturor at SeniorTailWaggers, A Love of Rottweilers, DogsCatsPets and TheDogsBone