What causes lameness in older dogs?

Getting older comes with plenty of positives but also its fair share of negatives. And as even the most active of dogs begins to slow down, we may sometimes notice them limping or suffering from lameness.

Most often in older dogs this is as a natural response to an injury or the onset of arthritis – but it could be a warning sign of something even more serious. Take a look at our Petwise guide to find out how to spot lameness, why older dogs sometimes go lame, and what you can do to help make your aging pet more comfortable.

On the whole, dogs are active, lively animals, but when it’s your turn to have a limping dog, it’s important to know what to do! Getting timely treatment from a vet is so important in managing such problems, but it can get expensive. Organising pet insurance for older dogs is the best way to help cover the cost of treatment and to get your faithful friend back on their feet.


How to tell if your older dog is suffering from lameness

Lameness can affect any breed of dog and at any time of life. It might affect just one leg or all four, and can be constant or come and go. It might seem worse at certain times in the day, such as first thing in the morning or last thing at night, after exercise or after rest.

Dogs are unfortunately very good at hiding pain from their owners, so it might be difficult to even know something is wrong. Knowing what’s normal for your dog is an important part of being a good pet parent. Here are some of the subtle and not-so-subtle signs that your dog is suffering from lameness.

  • Holding a leg up or refusing to place weight on a leg.
  • Reluctance to jump into the car or walk up or down stairs.
  • Pain and signs of discomfort.
  • Stiffness after resting or exercise. A very common problem in older dogs. They might find difficulty moving or a general stiffness after exercise or rest.
  • Swollen legs or joints, or other abnormalities.
  • Loss of muscle around the affected leg.
  • Walking slower.
  • Knuckling – not placing paws on the floor properly.
  • Over grooming. If they’re in pain they might keep licking a certain spot more than usual.
  • Unable to walk or run normally. If your old dog has gone lame in more than one leg it isn’t always obvious. Rather than a clear limp you may instead notice your dog walking with a different gait or looking stiff.

As humans and dogs get older they naturally slow down. However, it’s still a good idea to have your dog seen by a vet on a regular basis. It’s important to make sure it’s not because of an underlying condition that would benefit from treatment. You and your dog don’t just have to put up with a bit of pain as part of growing older. Life can be so much easier with a tweak to their routine or some targeted medical care.

Common causes of lameness in older dogs

A long list of conditions can lead to lameness in older dogs. Here are a few of the more common ones. If you spot one of these you’ll be pleased you invested in pet insurance for older dogs.


While senior dogs can become more prone to injuries, never assume a mobility problem is simply age-related. There could be an underlying problem that could also respond well to treatment. For example, while older dogs are more likely to tear a ligament, this might be the result of them having a pre-existing inflammatory joint disorder.

Also, if they do suffer such an injury, then they can become more likely to develop secondary arthritis. Pinning lameness on just one cause is more difficult than it seems.

  • Sprains, strains and torn ligaments – One of the most common causes of injury. Even older dogs can sometimes overdo it when it comes to leaping and bounding. Putting a lot of weight and stress on their muscles and joints in either their front or back legs.
  • Wounds – Depending on its size, depth, location and cause a wound can result in lameness. Anything more serious than a minor cut or graze should always be looked at by a professional.
  • Infections – If a wound isn’t dealt with correctly then it can easily become dirty and get infected, making the situation even worse.
  • Claw injury – A torn or broken nail can be extremely painful for a dog. Unfortunately, as a dog gets older, they can become more susceptible to this injury. This is because not only do their nails become more brittle and prone to breaking, but also, because they’re not moving around much, their nails can get too long and are more likely to catch on carpets, upholstery and so on. Be warned, injuries to the claw can bleed a lot!
  • Object embedded in the paw or leg – Whether a sharp piece of glass, grass seed, or thorn it can be quite common for dogs to step on sharp objects. Ouch!
  • Broken bones and dislocated joints – Even the bravest of dogs will find it difficult to hide this type of injury from you. While all breeds are prone to fractures, they most often happen in older dogs and young, adventurous pups. Toy breeds with tiny fragile limbs are also susceptible to them. If you suspect a break or dislocation then your primary aim is always to reduce pain and risk of further accidents, as well as avoiding infection. Don’t delay, get your dog to your vet immediately.

Other conditions causing lameness

Lameness isn’t always as a result of injury. There are a whole host of other conditions that can affect the front legs, back legs or both.

Shoulder and elbow dysplasia

A painful condition more usually found in large and giant breed dogs from a fairly young age. As well as pain it causes swelling, instability and often leads to arthritis.

German Shepard

Hip dysplasia

Hip dysplasia is when the ball and socket hip joints don’t fit together properly and become unstable. It’s a painful condition which leads to swelling, stiffness and eventually arthritis. While hip dysplasia can result from trauma or dislocation most usually it’s an inherited condition. It can occur at any age but tends to be worse in medium/large breed dogs, fast growing dogs, overweight dogs and dogs who have been over-exercised when young.

Patella (kneecap) luxation

This is where a kneecap slips out of its normal position. So you might notice a skip in your dog’s step. Or see them run on three legs, but suddenly go back to all four as if nothing happened. Toy or small breed dogs, such as Maltese, Chihuahua, and Bichon Frise all have a genetic predisposition to the condition. While some dogs can tolerate this condition for many years, it also predisposes them to other knee injuries as their life progresses.

Cruciate ligament injury

In layman’s terms, the cruciate ligaments are like two pieces of strong elastic holding the dog’s knee together. If they’re damaged either through tearing or snapping the knee becomes wobbly and extremely painful. Some break after being weakened over time while some do so suddenly after a blow or fall.

Achilles tendon injury

Made up of multiple muscles, an injury to this complex tendon is very serious indeed. There are several types of injury that can take place and diagnosis can be done in multiple ways. Recovery can be a long process but is certainly possible.


Another common cause of lameness resulting from the painful inflammation of one or many joints in the body. While it can occur at any age, it is most commonly seen developing in older dogs. Arthritis can develop either as a primary issue resulting from general wear and tear over the years. Or it may develop as a secondary issue resulting from an injury or damage to a joint.

Septic arthritis

This condition occurs when bacteria or other nasties find their way into one or more joints, leading to painful inflammation. In general, large/giant breed dogs are more usually affected. Usually between the ages of three and 11 years.

There are several factors making a dog more vulnerable to this condition including: diabetes mellitus, trauma to the joint, osteoarthritis, and medications that suppress the immune system. Learn more about the signs of diabetes in older dogs in our recent blog. 

Bone tumour

Unfortunately bone tumours are often not diagnosed until they have become more advanced. This is because they display very similar symptoms to arthritis. So, if your dog has not responded as well as expected to arthritis treatment, don’t just put it down to old age. An X-ray might be necessary to help determine if there’s something else amiss.

If you’ve caught the tumour early and it hasn’t had time to spread, specialist bone surgery might be possible, with the affected part being amputated. So, even if you think your dog is limping ‘just’ because they have arthritis, it’s still important to get them checked out. It could be something even more serious.

Back problems

We all know how painful conditions such as a slipped disc can be. And it’s the same for dogs. If your perfect pooch is suffering from back problems such as spondylosis – a form of arthritis that affects the spine – then may slow down significantly and suffer from lameness. Back pain or any weakness in the back legs can soon result in difficulties moving. Signs of back problems include stumbling, weakness at the back, crossing the back legs, and knuckling. Pet insurance for older dogs could help with any emergency treatment needed.


According to the Royal Veterinary College, obesity is a big problem for the UK pet dog population. Obesity can cause a range of health and wellbeing problems, including lameness. Often this is due to the strain that the excess weight puts on their joints. Dogs who are overweight are much more likely to develop joint injuries or conditions like arthritis.

Jack russell

Treatment for lameness

The best treatment for an older dog with lameness will obviously depend on the cause. It could be something as simple as a few days of rest, for example if they’ve overexerted themselves and pulled a muscle. Or perhaps they just need to lose a few pounds in weight.

However, treatment could also involve an X-ray, surgical procedure, further testing, and a lengthy recovery. While this may sound worrying, the best thing you can do for your senior dog is to have them seen by a vet. By acting quickly, you’ll get them the best treatment, and the prognosis for them will be much better.

Your vet will want to give your dog a thorough examination to be sure of finding out the cause of the lameness, how severe the problem is and the best treatment. Always contact your vet if you notice your dog is limping or appears stiff.

Do this as a matter of great urgency if they seem in severe pain, are unwilling to put a leg down or have a serious wound. But as a devoted older dog owner, you know your canine better than anyone. So, if you’re at all worried about your pet’s health it’s always best to contact a professional.

While you’re waiting to see your vet, try to keep your dog calm and stay away from exercise or play to avoid making things worse. Never give your dog human pain medication. This can be toxic or even fatal to your beloved pet. Always consult your vet before giving them any medication.

Get pet insurance for older dogs from Petwise

Here at Petwise, we’re all about getting your senior dog the very best level of care available. You’ll be relieved to find out there’s no upper joining age limit for insurance cover with us. After all, we believe that every dog deserves great cover throughout their life.

Our pet insurance for older dogs comes with seven cover levels to choose from, so there's bound to be one that suits your budget and your dog’s particular needs. There’s even a contribution towards specialist senior pet food.

Get a quick quote for pet insurance for older dogs today.