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Your Cat is Limping. Now What?

Veterinarian Dr. John Iovino on when it’s no big deal and when you should worry.

by Charlotte Brackett | expert review by Dr. John Iovino, DVM
June 21, 2022
An orange cat holding its paw up

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One minute, your cat is their normal, nimble self — swatting stuff off tables, doing the zoomies, and such. The next, they’re limping. What happened in the few seconds you weren’t paying attention? Did they get on top of the fridge (not for the first time) and misjudge the landing? Is it serious or are they being dramatic? While the first thing you should do is call your veterinarian (we sound like a broken record, but they’re the professionals, after all), in the spirit of being proactive, we asked The Wildest Collective veterinarian Dr. John Iovino for tips in case this happens to you.

First Steps When You Notice Your Cat Limping

Say you saw your cat fall from a height and they weren’t able to upright themself in time. In this instance, it’s no surprise when they can’t bear weight on one of their paws. You know the cause, so a little R&R should fix the issue relatively quickly and if the problem persists, you can explain the situation to your vet.

Noticing a limp without knowing the cause is always a little scary since you can’t determine the severity of the injury. While waiting for an appointment with your vet, you can try to assess what kind of injury your cat has (if they’ll let you). With a mild injury, you may see a very slight limp with no obvious signs of swellings or skin damage. As a rule of thumb: The more serious injuries have more severe physical symptoms.

“With more severe injuries — a broken bone or a fracture — you will usually see a very bad limp,” Dr. Iovino says. “The cat may not want to apply pressure at all to the leg. In addition, fractures will often cause a lot of swelling where the break is.” Many may assume that a limp is caused by an injury to muscle, bones or tendons, but that isn’t always the case. Infections or wounds can cause swelling and limping, which is why Dr. Iovino always recommends checking for wounds on the paws and in between the toes.

Other Causes and Treatments for Cat Limps

If it’s not a jump gone wrong, your cat’s limp could be caused by a number of other things including arthritis or joint issues, ingrown or broken nails, sore paw pads, bite wounds, or cancer. Here are some ways to help care for your cat when you get to the root of the issue.

Arthritis 

With old age comes the risk of arthritis, which can cause lameness or joint problems that are revealed in the form of a limp and/or a decrease in physical activity. Dr. Iovino shares that cats, like dogs, can benefit from joint supplementation and prescription pain medication to help them as they age. Adding Omega-3 fatty acids to their food can help reduce inflammation.

Nail issues

An ingrown nail can be hard to see, especially in breeds with long fur, but can cause significant pain. A trip to the vet, the removal of the nail, and some pain medication is the best remedy. 

Sore paw pads

Similarly, a walk on hot pavement can cause a lot of pain. Serious burns may require a trip to the vet, while smaller burns can be treated at home by keeping the area clean and dry, applying antibiotics, and wrapping it in a bandage.

Wounds

Bites or outdoor injuries can be very painful. Dr. Iovino advises that open wounds lead to infections and “infections can lead to pain, swelling and sometimes discharge. We usually want to have your local vet evaluate and clean any wounds and start with some antibiotics and pain management.”

Soft tissue injury

This is another tricky injury to diagnose. Typically, minor injuries to muscles heal well on their own with rest, whereas musculoskeletal system injuries can take longer (two to three weeks).

Fractures

Breaks are common in cats that like to jump. According to Dr. Iovino, casts or splints are typically required to help the healing process, something that can take anywhere from eight to twelve weeks. “Some breaks are bad enough that they may need surgery to stabilize the damaged area for proper healing. In the initial stage of care, we will often use cat-specific pain medication, and this — along with stabilizing — helps them heal better.”

Cancer

Certain neurological diseases can affect the way a calk walks. Your veterinarian will run tests to find out what is going on and will treat accordingly.

After Care

Regardless of what caused the limp, your cat will need to rest upon returning from the vet. As noted above, different ailments need differing lengths of healing time. Which is easier said than done with cats who are typically always on the move.

If you have ever wondered if a cat can be crated, the answer is yes. Will they like it? Probably not. Dr. Iovino advises using a crate to keep cats “more stabilized and prevent further injury.” As long as you can fit a litter box, water and food bowls, and give them a place to sleep, get up and turn easily, a crate can be the perfect place to heal. However, it’s not always the right choice for every cat. “Some cats may panic or get anxiety in a crate situation, and this can cause more movement and further injury.”

If crating isn’t an option, you can still create a space that will keep them safe. Dr. Iovino suggests using a small spare room for a more controlled environment and to remove the temptation to jump by jump-proofing that space. “Adding padding, pillows or small ramps around the couch or bed where they seem to jump a lot can be important if they miss and fall.”

It is important to remember that a cat that limps is in pain. Initially, it may be hard to pinpoint exactly what caused the limp, but if you notice that it isn’t going away after a few hours, a trip to the vet is the best option.

Ask a Vet

Sudden scratching? Finicky food eater? Loose poop? Whatever pet health question is on your mind, our veterinary pros are here to help.

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charlotte brackett

Charlotte Brackett

Charlotte Brackett is a writer and content manager for the Pet Insight Project, which gathers data about dog behavior that may improve the lives of pets. She enjoys interviewing veterinarians and writing articles that help make dog ownership as easy and fun as possible. Charlotte earned a degree in journalism and English from the University of Richmond.