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Learning the Language of Lameness

Life might be a lot easier for pet owners and veterinarians alike if our pets could just talk, especially when something is bothering them. For example, when Kitty comes in with a swollen paw, it would help if she could explain she was just stung by a bee. Instead, we are left with our powers of observation and deductive reasoning to come up with answers to our pets' problems. Fortunately, in large part, we can learn their language.

When an animal is not moving around normally, our job is to try to localize the source of the problem. This is best done with a trip to the office so we can get a good history and perform a thorough physical examination.

History is an important part of any illness. Some questions we might ask when your animal is lame include:

  • How long has the problem existed?

  • Has your pet ever done anything like this before?

  • How did it first start (any known trauma or injury)?

  • Is it worse after exercise, rest or both?

  • Does the lameness seem to move from leg to leg?

  • Is the lameness constant or variable?

  • Is your pet sensitive to touch anywhere?

  • Have you noticed any redness or swelling?

  • Has your pet been licking a specific area on the affected limb?

  • Have you given your pet any medication? (More on this later)

An important point to realize is that animals rarely vocalize their pain. More likely they will just avoid using the affected area. Just because your pet is not crying out, however, doesn't mean he or she doesn't hurt. Generally speaking, an animal limps because it hurts to put weight on the affected leg, or the pet no longer jumps up on the chair or into the truck because it hurts to move in that manner. These are the messages we must learn to identify.

Our physical exam will include an evaluation of the pet's overall condition. We may want to watch the animal move around. We likely will poke and prod and stretch and flex to try and focus the problem to a specific area of the body. This is where learning the language is critical. Fido or Fluffy may complain in no uncertain terms with a yelp, growl or hiss when we find a particularly tender area. Other times the response may be as subtle as an ear turned in our direction, a raised eyebrow, or a reluctance to move a given body part in a particular way.

Once we believe we have localized the problem, we may recommend further diagnostic tests to provide us more information so we can better plan a course of treatment. This most often involves taking X-rays (more correctly called radiographs), of the affected area. We may need to sedate or even anesthetize the pet to get a good picture as we are often trying to manipulate an area of the body that hurts.

Radiographs are most specific for evaluating bone and joint problems. We can see obvious changes, like a fracture, or arthritis that is of long enough standing to have produced bony changes in the joints. Other changes we may identify include excess fluid in the joints, foreign bodies (especially if they are metal), some changes that are associated with infections, signs that suggest a tumor, or non-specific swelling in the soft tissues. Things like a pulled muscle, strained tendon or pinched nerve are not readily seen. Sometimes our findings give us the answer we need. They may also point us in a direction that requires additional testing for a more specific diagnosis.

Depending on your pet, our history, physical examination, and any additional diagnostic tests we perform, we will develop a treatment plan. This can be as simple as rest and anti-inflammatory medication, or as complicated as orthopedic surgery. It's very important that you not give your pet any medication without checking with us first. Acetaminophen (Tylenol) given to cats, for instance, can be FATAL. If we have to do surgery on your pet, excessive bleeding can be a problem if he or she has been on aspirin. Additionally, it's harder for us to identify subtle changes in animals that are medicated because their normal response to our stimulation may be masked by the drugs.

In summary, animals generally limp because they are in pain. If your animal isn't moving around well, please call our office and schedule an appointment so we can "talk" with your pet. We'll do our best to figure out what's going on and try to make life better for your special companion.




The Animal Hospital at the Crossroads
Three The Crossroads, Carmel, CA  93923-8612 
(831) 624-0131 Fax: (831) 624-6601

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