If you notice your dog walking on three legs, you are probably concerned. Just like humans, dogs often avoid putting weight on a leg because it causes them pain. You may notice your dog limping anytime they walk, or only occasionally.
The good news is your dog can adjust to walking on three legs if necessary. Many dogs who have been seriously injured or lost a leg live a full life. Of course, it’s always better to restore use of the leg when possible.
Why does my dog walk on three legs?
Anytime your dog walks on three legs, you should investigate to determine the cause. Minor injuries will often heal on their own, but many causes of limping require veterinary care.
Sprains and Strains
Sprains and strains can occur from a wrong movement or overexertion. You’ve probably pulled a muscle at some point in your life. Perhaps you sprained your ankle, or “threw your back out”. These conditions are painful, but they usually heal without permanent injury.
Strains are injuries to the tendons that link muscles and bones. Strains commonly occur in the hips and thighs.
Sprains involve the ligaments that connect bones. Severe sprains can cause joint damage. Sprains are common in the wrist or knee. The wrist is found in the front legs, and the knee is found in the back legs.
A sprain or strain will often come on suddenly. Your dog may begin limping, walking on three legs, and showing signs of pain, like whining.
Depending on the severity, your pooch may need bed rest and pain medication.
An injured paw can also cause your dog to walk on three legs. An injured paw is painful, particularly when your dog puts weight on it. You may notice a cut or object stuck in the paw.
Paws can also get bruised or burned. Bruises can occur from a high jump or even accidentally being stepped on. Burned paws often occur during the summer, from walking on hot pavement or sidewalks. Wintertime can also bring paw injury. It can cause a burn similar to a heat burn. Use care when walking your dog in very cold temperatures.
Technically, this doesn’t occur when walking. Instead, it occurs when your dog stops mid-step and stands still. It’s common in hunting dogs. They will stop walking to avoid startling their prey. It also lets their owner know that prey is near.
Habit and Reinforcement
Your dog may be walking on three legs out of habit, or because you reinforced the behavior. If they injured their paw or leg, they may continue to walk on three legs after it’s healed.
If you gave them lots of comfort or attention when they were walking on 3 legs, they may continue doing it because of the positive reinforcement. Of course, this wasn’t your intention, but your dog doesn’t think the same way you do. Their brains work similar to that of a young child. If I do this, this happens. When they perform an action and something positive happens, like praise, they continue doing it.
Arthritis can affect dogs just as it can humans. It’s common in older dogs, but it can affect dogs of any age. The condition causes inflammation, which makes movement painful.
A dog with arthritis will have difficulty moving from a lying or sitting to a standing position. They may limp more when they are just getting moving for the day, and towards the end of the day.
Of course, if your dog has a fractured leg, they will avoid walking on it. Depending on the severity of the break, your pooch may be able to put slight weight on the leg, or none at all.
If your dog has a fracture, you may notice that their leg looks crooked or misshapen. They will likely show signs of pain, including loss of appetite, inability to exercise, whining, and clinginess.
Why does my dog run on three legs?
Surprisingly, a dog can run with only 3 legs. There are a few reasons why your dog might run on three legs. Generally, it’s because they experience pain in a limb. When they avoid putting weight on the limb, it reduces the pain.
Hip dysplasia is common in large breed dogs. The joint is loose, which can cause pain. It’s usually present from a young age, but symptoms occur in middle or old age.
The abnormal joint movement can cause permanent damage over time. Osteoarthritis commonly occurs due to hip dysplasia.
Breeds at a higher risk of hip dysplasia include German shepherds, Rottweilers, Retrievers, Saint Bernards, and Newfoundlands. Eating too much as a puppy can lead them to grow too quickly, increasing the risk. Too much exercise also increases the risk of hip dysplasia.
Symptoms of hip dysplasia include running on 3 legs and bunny hopping. Your dog may also have difficulty getting up and have a clicking sound in their hip when they move. As it progresses, older dogs may have difficulty jumping or climbing, and a loss of muscle in the back legs.
Elbow dysplasia also occurs due to a structural abnormality of the joint. It’s the most common cause of front limb lameness in dogs. In other words, if your dog isn’t walking on one of their front legs, this is the most likely cause.
Patella luxation can be confusing for pet parents, because it can come and go without warning. One minute your dog is running on three legs, and the next they are running on all four.
Patellar ridges keep the kneecap from moving more than it should. Some dogs are born with flatter ridges, so their knees can move out of place. This is why dog can be limping one moment and walking normally the next. The knee goes out of place and then back in.
Small breed dogs are at higher risk of luxating patella. However, large breed dogs can develop it as a secondary condition. If your dog has hip dysplasia or an ankle injury, this can change the body’s ergonomics. This leads to more pressure on the knee, which can cause patella luxation.
Why does my dog lift his back leg when he walks?
Your dog lifts his back leg when he walks to avoid putting weight on it. You can assume that it’s painful for them to put weight on the leg they are holding up. There are a few common culprits.
If your dog breaks his leg, he may avoid walking whenever possible. If they do walk, they will hold it above the ground to avoid putting any weight on it.
Cruciate Ligament Tears
Cruciate ligament tears are the most common cause of back leg lameness. It’s similar to the ACL in humans. Tears can occur due to an injury, often when the dog is running or playing.
In older dogs, the ligament can weaken over time. It can then tear with something minor, like getting up in the morning. A dog with a cruciate ligament tear will hold its hind leg up when walking.
Patella luxation can also cause your dog to hold its hind leg up when walking. When the knee is out of place, walking on the leg causes pain. When it goes back in, your dog will be able to walk normally again.
Why does my dog walk on three legs sometimes?
If your dog only walks on three legs sometimes, there are a few potential causes. It can seem less serious than a dog who always walks on three legs, but it can still indicate a condition that needs treatment.
Arthritis tends to come and go in dogs just as it does in humans. Your dog may walk on three legs in the morning and evening, but appear fine during the middle of the day.
They may also walk on three legs during weather changes, or after a period of vigorous exercise.
A patella luxation only causes pain when its out of place. When the knee shifts out of place, your dog will walk on three legs. When it slips back in, your dog can walk normally.
Panosteitis occurs when the bone is inflamed. It’s often referred to as growing pains, and tends to affect dogs when they are in a high growth period.
It comes and goes. It can also move from one leg to another. It can occur in any breed, but large breed dogs are at a higher risk, particularly German Shepards.
Along with sudden pain that causes lameness or limping, some dogs experience fever, lethargy, and weight loss. Affected dogs will have periods of pain and lameness which usually resolves by 2 years old.
What to do about my dog walking on three legs?
If your dog is walking on three legs, there are a few things you need to do. Your pooch may need simple rest or they may require veterinary care.
Evaluating the Leg
How much your dog walks on only 3 legs is a great starting point for determining the seriousness and course of action. If your dog can put weight on the leg part of the time, and walks on three legs at other times, it’s unlikely they’ve suffered a serious injury.
Start by examining their paw. If the paw is cut or sore, this is likely the cause of them walking on three legs. If you can’t treat the injury yourself, take them to a vet.
Examine the leg. Feel the leg gently. Look for swelling, heat, or signs of soreness.
Wait and Watch
If your dog is putting weight on the affected leg part of the time and doesn’t seem to be in a lot of pain, you can watch and wait. Avoid exercise and try to limit your dog’s activity level. If they are still walking on 3 legs 24 hours later, they’ll need a vet visit.
When to Seek Emergency Veterinary Care
In some cases, your dog needs immediate veterinary care. Breaks and dislocations can become worse if your dog doesn’t get immediate medical attention.
If your dog seems to be in a lot of pain, or they are putting no weight on the leg, they likely need emergency veterinary care. Other signs your dog needs to see an emergency vet include a dangling limb, a limb bent at an unnatural angle, and an obvious break. Significant swelling and heat should also be evaluated quickly.
If your dog is small enough to carry, carry them to the vehicle. If they are large, allow them to walk if they can. If they can’t, use a blanket to create a sling to move them to the vehicle.
Place the injured limb up if possible. Avoid moving them as much as possible. Be careful when interacting with your dog. A dog in intense pain can lash out.