Why is my cat limping?

By: Kelli Klein, DVM

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One of the most challenging aspects of veterinary medicine is that our patients cat not talk and tell us what is wrong.  In my experience it is even more difficult when working with a cat compared to a dog.  When a cat comes into the veterinary clinic they can be very challenging to evaluate.  Most cats when taken out of their normal environment become a bit nervous and can hide their “true symptoms” very well.  It is also natural instinct for them to not show weakness as that would make them more likely to succumb to a predator.  Therefore, when a cat comes into the clinic we as veterinarians need to take time and be patient in our exam to try and determine a cause for their symptoms.

It is not uncommon for me to see on my appointment schedule that there is going to be a limping cat coming in for exam.  There are several reasons for a cat to limp and the cause depends a lot on their lifestyle and age.  However, in nearly all of the cases limping is a sign of pain or discomfort.

Cats that have access to the outdoors are more commonly seen for limping.  In our area and in the warmer months one thing we would worry about would be a snake bite.  With a venomous snake bite (which most commonly will be on the leg in a cat) we see limping, bruising, and swelling.  It is not always possible to see puncture marks from the fangs.  Venomous snake bites can be very serious and require immediate treatment.  This can be difficult to differentiate from an abscess as well.  An abscess occurs when bacteria gets trapped under the skin.  This is generally secondary to getting into a fight with another cat (or sometimes a wild animal).  Snake bites and an abscess from a bite wound are treated very differently.  It is not always possible to tell the difference but an experienced veterinarian can usually tell with some certainty based on his/her exam and the history as provided by the owner. 

Trauma is another cause for limping.  We commonly see this in cats that go outside but trauma can also happen in the house.  Cats are known for being very curious and they want to explore which is how they can end up in some precarious situations.  I have seen cats get their legs caught in window blinds, in a recliner, and even in a cabinet door.  Most of the time cats can free themselves from these situations on their own but depending on the severity of the injury we will often see limping.  The limping may just be short lived and only from pain (without an underlying injury) but could also be something more serious like a soft tissue injury or even a fracture to the bone.  Other possible causes of trauma in an indoor only cat may be from playing a little too hard with a housemate or jumping off from a counter or elevated piece of furniture.  These usually cause just a very mild soft tissue injury and nothing serious but can be uncomfortable.  In addition to traumatic bite wounds as mentioned above cats that have access to being outdoors can suffer other types of trauma as well.  They can catch their leg on fencing or other physical barriers.  They are also at risk for being hit by a car, injuring a leg if trying to jump over a fence, or stepping on something sharp.  These scenarios can lead to a wide variety in degree of pain and limping.

There are also non traumatic reasons for limping.  As cats age they certainly develop arthritis in their joints which can be uncomfortable and lead to limping.  This may be more of a gradual progression seen at home.  It is also important to keep your cats nails trimmed (if they are not using them for outdoor activities) because they will continue to grow and can traumatize the pads which can lead to limping.

Bottom line, cats tend to hide their pain very well and sometimes it is not until they are showing very obvious signs that we realize there is a problem.  If you see your cat limping or if they seem uncomfortable when you touch one of their legs the best thing is to have your veterinarian check him/her out.  Depending on the lifestyle and age of your cat will play a major role in the likely cause of limping but with an exam by your veterinarian you are likely to get some answers and be able to treat the source of the limping.