They say dogs have owners, but cats have servants – this certainly seems to be true when from the tiniest kitten to the biggest mog, cats strut about confident they rule the roost. However, cats are not as invincible as they like to think, and one of the most common problems you may notice is limping. Limping, or lameness, is when one or more of a cat’s legs has an abnormal walking pattern. In this blog, we’ll be looking at lameness in cats and its common causes!
Lameness in Cats
Despite appearances, there’s a lot packed into those four furry legs – muscles, tendons, ligaments, nerves, bones, blood vessels, skin, and fat: all can become damaged through injury or disease, causing pain and thus lameness. Lameness itself covers a wide spectrum of abnormal walking patterns, so you should first assess how lame your cat is.
The first thing to do is to identify which leg, or legs, your cat is lame on. Watch them walking and see if they bring one leg forward quicker than the others – generally, the opposite leg is the one that hurts, and they are trying to bring weight onto a healthy leg quicker. Is the problem just the front legs, or just the back legs? Perhaps both? They may, in fact, be walking normally, so observe them sitting – is one leg raised up? Are they lame all the time, or just at certain times? Very serious lameness may mean your cat does not place the injured leg on the floor at all, or may not even be able to walk.
If you can, try and identify a cause. You may have seen an injury take place – a fall, an accident with a car, a dog or cat bite – in which case, you can presume this was the primary cause (of course, in this case, you should take your cat to the vets immediately regardless); other injuries and illnesses may be harder to identify.
If your cat is not in too much pain, and will allow you, you can gently examine the injured leg. Look for any open wounds, bleeding, or pus, which will indicate a recent wound. Partially healed wounds will be drier, usually scabbed over, and may feel hot to the touch. There may be lumps or fluid under the skin, which you can feel too. Check from the top of their leg, down to the paws. Do not forget to look at all their claws too. Test your cat’s range of motion, whether they can flex and extend their leg fully, but be very slow and gentle – if there is any resistance, stop; moving an injured leg may cause further damage. And never do this if you suspect a broken leg.
Lameness is often accompanied by other symptoms, which may even be easier to notice. Make a list of any you spot, to make your vet’s job easier. These can include seeming feverish, a change in the breathing or heart rate, pain when touched anywhere, not just the injured leg, a change in behaviour, or not eating or drinking.
All of these guidelines will hopefully give you a better idea of what is wrong with your cat. If you are in any doubt, do not attempt to examine your cat too closely – regardless of the seriousness, lameness in any form should not be ignored. The problem may disappear, but it may also get worse, so do not take this risk and see your vet so they can examine your pet’s lameness properly without causing excessive pain.
Some Causes of Lameness
As mentioned above, there are many diseases and injuries that can cause your cat to become lame, most of which will need to be treated by a vet. However, it is still important to understand what can cause lameness in your cat.
The most dramatic causes of lameness are traumatic injuries. Falls and car accidents can cause broken bones – leg bones, the hips, shoulder blades, or the spine can become damaged, leading to pain and usually complete lameness if serious. Lighter injuries may “only” damage muscle and soft tissue, or result in dislocations, sprains or pulled muscles – but all of these can still cause lameness. If a cat’s tail is pulled too hard, it can damage the spinal nerves that supply the rear legs, leading to paralysis and lameness. These kinds of injuries will usually be obvious, and often the cat will have other cuts and scrapes to help identify the cause.
As with all animals, infections are common in cats, and many can cause lameness if they are located around the legs. Cat’s mouths are full of bacteria, and if yours is a bit too feisty, they may end up on the wrong end of next-door’s mean mog, and left with a dirty bite on the leg. These kinds of wounds will quickly become swollen and infected, leading to a large pocket full of pus called an abscess. If this bursts internally, all the pus and bacteria can spread around the body, so it is best to get them treated quickly. Other injuries, such as being cut by plants or pieces of metal, or just a wound that was not cleaned properly, can lead to abscesses. A leg with an abscess will usually be very warm, painful and cause lameness. There are even germs within your cat that can lead to infection and lameness too.
Lameness may not always be a sudden change, but progressively get worse. In these cases, although there is something going wrong, it is not due to an external injury (though an accident could make the problem worse). One of the most common is arthritis, which primarily affects elderly cats, but can be seen in any age. Arthritis is a general term for inflammation of the joints, leading to pain. As there are many causes, usually a vet will have to assess what kind of arthritis is present, and what can be done. In younger cats, there is usually a disease behind the arthritis – in elderly cats, it is often due to natural wear and tear of the joints, so management will be needed. Most commonly affected are the hip and the knee joints.
Often forgotten about when discussing the legs are a cat’s claws. Although the claw itself has no nerves, the surrounding tissue can become damaged and cause lameness. Most cats will naturally keep their claws short by scratching at objects (hopefully not the sofa!), but some may neglect them. In these cats, the claw keeps growing round until it starts to poke into the bottom of their feet. This can cause discomfort walking, pain, and can even start to grow into the foot. Overgrown claws should be clipped before becoming a problem. The claws can also be broken after trauma – if the break is too close to their toe, it may damage blood vessels in the nail, causing bleeding and potentially infection.
Finally, one of the most subtle causes of lameness in cats are neurological and spinal diseases. The brain and spinal cord are directly connected to the limbs, and any damage may lead to lameness. Diseases like cancer can disrupt the nervous connection to the legs, and cause lameness. The spine can often become damaged in accidents, which can cause nervous damage or paralysis. In the brain itself, damage such as a stroke can lead to a loss of control of the legs, which may cause lameness. Sometimes, these neurological impairments can be present from birth, and your cat may be able to manage even with an unusual walk. Any sudden change, however, should be assessed by a vet.