Cats use their hind legs to jump, balance, and run away from danger. If one of his legs is not functioning properly, this can leave him feeling very vulnerable.
A cat with a limp probably is in pain but he’ll be hiding this so as not to appear vulnerable in front of predators. The most common causes of lameness include soft tissue injuries, abscesses, and arthritis. Less common causes include broken bones and fibrotic myopathy.
Cats don’t express their pain in the same way as humans. As a cat owner, it’s your responsibility to recognize whether your cat is in pain or not. We’ll help you determine why your cat is limping and whether he is experiencing any discomfort that requires medical attention.
- 1 What Causes a Cat to Limp?
- 2 How to Know If Your Cat is in Pain
- 2.1 Cat Limping Due to Soft Tissue Injury
- 2.2 Does My Cat Have Arthritis?
- 2.3 Paw Pad and Claw Injuries in Cats
- 2.4 Does My Cat Have an Abscess?
- 2.5 Cat Limping Due to An Insect Bite or Sting
- 2.6 Is It a Broken Leg?
- 2.7 Hip Dysplasia
- 2.8 Fibrotic Myopathy
- 2.9 Abnormal Heartworm Migration and Limping
- 2.10 Cat Scooting Across the Floor
- 3 Risk Factors for Lameness in Cats
What Causes a Cat to Limp?
A cat’s limp can be temporary or long-lasting, and it can be caused by various factors. Starting with the most common, here are the causes of lameness in cats:
- Soft Tissue Injuries (muscle sprain, ligament damage, tendonitis)
- Paw Pad Injuries or Torn Claws (due to fighting, foreign objects, etc.)
- Paw Pad Infections (fungal, bacterial, ingrown claws)
- Viral Infections (particularly Calicivirus)
- Arthritis (temporary or chronic)
- Insect Bites or Stings
- Abscesses (various causes)
- Broken Bones
- Hip Dysplasia
- Fibrotic Myopathy (rare muscular condition)
- Abnormal Heart Worm Migration (very rare)
A broken bone would be excruciatingly painful and would cause a cat to howl in pain. Other conditions such as arthritis would also be painful, but an arthritic cat would not cry out in pain.
How to Know If Your Cat is in Pain
When a cat is hurt, he’ll try to hide it so that he doesn’t appear vulnerable to predators. However, if you pay close attention to your cat’s behavior, you can spot some of the signs. Cats that are in pain tend to behave in the following ways:
- Hiding for Long Periods of Time – If your cat is spending more time alone than usual, then he might be feeling vulnerable. Injured cats often seek out a hiding place they feel safe in such as a wardrobe, cupboard, or a sheltered spot in the garden. Though your cat wants to be left alone, you may need to intervene in order to take him for treatment.
- Loud Purring – Cats don’t only purr when they are happy; purring is a healing mechanism.
- Swelling – Some of the above conditions/injuries will cause swelling.
- A Warm Leg – A swollen leg will often feel warm to the touch. If your cat’s leg is warm and swollen, you can be certain he is experiencing some degree of pain if he is not showing it.
- Refusing to Let You Touch the Leg – If your cat refuses to let you touch his leg/paw, this suggests that he may be in pain. Hissing, spitting, or scratching when you come close are signs you should take your cat to the vet. You should never manipulate or stretch your cat’s leg when inspecting it as you may cause further damage.
- Dried-On Blood or Bodily Fluids – If a cat has a small laceration on his skin that bleeds, then he’ll lick the blood away to stay clean. If you see lots of dried-on blood on your cat’s leg (in a place that he can reach with his tongue), this suggests that he fatigued and in discomfort.
- Loss of Appetite – A cat with a minor injury may temporarily eat less because it is too much effort to get to his food bowl. However, if he is refusing to eat, even when food is brought to him, then he may be in a lot of pain.
If your cat is limping and has any of the above symptoms/behaviors, this suggests that he could be hurting. Even if he is not in pain, the cause behind their limp could still require treatment.
Cat Limping Due to Soft Tissue Injury
Soft tissue injuries are fairly common in cats. This is an injury to the muscles, ligaments, or tendons that surround the bones. These injuries can be caused by:
- Overreaching when jumping and leaping
- Cat fights
- Falls (from furniture, fences, etc.)
- Running away from a threat and stumbling
Soft tissue injuries can vary in severity. A cat with a soft tissue injury will probably still move around but will try not to put too much weight on the injured muscle or joint. Cats with a soft tissue injury will probably be in pain, but the signs may be subtle.
For example, muscle sprains do not usually cause a cat to howl in pain or lose his appetite. Instead, injured cats tend to spend time alone and purr excessively. The site of injury may feel warm.
If you suspect your cat has a soft tissue injury, it’s advisable to take him to the vet to eliminate any other conditions. Your vet may also prescribe some cat-friendly pain killers.
Soft tissue injuries take between 2 and 6 weeks to heal. During this time, you should keep your cat inside the house, ideally confined to one room. Bring all food and water to him to stop your cat from moving around too much.
Does My Cat Have Arthritis?
Arthritic cats have stiff, inflamed joints so they find it hard to bend and flex their hind legs. According to the FDA, arthritis is a painful condition for cats, but an arthritic cat probably won’t complain by meowing or whining. Instead, you should look for subtler signs:
- A stiff posture (no suppleness/agility when moving around)
- Dragging one foot across the floor
- Hobbling around slowly
- Issues with balance, particularly when jumping or squatting
- Unwilling to jump, even very close distances
- Swelling around the joints (perhaps some warmth, too)
Osteoarthritis is fairly common in cats aged 10 years or over, but it is not the only type of arthritis. Acute (sudden-onset) arthritis can happen at any age and can be caused by:
- Bacterial infections (carried by ticks)
- Viral infections (such as calicivirus)
If your cat has arthritis caused by feline calicivirus, your cat will also have flu-like symptoms such as a running nose and lethargy. Calicivirus is very common in kittens. The cat’s limp should go away after the infection has been treated.
The treatment for osteoarthritis is non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAID’s) for cats, and supplements such as glucosamine (a form of cartilage). Weight management is also extremely important for minimizing the impact on the joints.
Paw Pad and Claw Injuries in Cats
If there’s no stiffness in your cat’s leg, but he is reluctant to put his paw on the floor, then he may have injured his paw pad or claw. Cats that spend lots of time outdoors are more prone to paw pad injuries. These can be caused by:
- Broken shards of glass or plastic
- Sharp crumbs of food on the floor
- Small stones/gravel
- Scratching a rough surface with their claws but missing
- Fighting with other animals or catching prey
To determine if your cat is affected, you should look for signs of laceration or bleeding. If there is only a small amount of blood and no obvious signs of pain, you can try cleaning the wound. Use a saline solution or mild antiseptic wash that is safe for cats (such as diluted Iodine, or chlorhexidine).
Avoid antiseptics containing phenols, alcohols or hydrogen peroxide as these can damage the wound even more. You should see a vet immediately if any of the following apply:
- You cannot contain the blood flow
- There is a broken claw still hanging off
- You cannot remove the foreign object from your cat’s paw
- Your cat will not allow you anywhere near the paw to inspect the damage
- Weeping, a foul smell, or other signs of infection
Open wounds can become infected, so you should not let your cat outside until their wound has completely healed.
Does My Cat Have an Abscess?
If your cat is limping for an unexplained reason, you should check for evidence of an abscess. Abscesses are fairly common in cats that spend time outdoors and they can be life-threating if not treated properly.
An abscess is a swollen, raised area usually about 1-2 inches in diameter. It should be detectable to the naked eye but do bear in mind that it may be hard to detect in long-haired cats. Abscesses typically cause the following symptoms:
- Pawing at the leg
- Liquid seeping from the leg
Abscesses are usually caused by a cat bite. Cat’s teeth are very sharp so a bite from another cat will pierce the skin deeply. The bacteria from the cat’s mouth then transfers into the wound and can develop into a pus-filled pocket underneath the skin. Bacteria, like Staphylococcus and E-coli, are commonly found in cat’s mouths and these can lead to painful abscesses.
Abscesses can occasionally develop if the cat’s skin is pierced by something sharp, such as a branch or piece of plastic that has harmful bacteria on it.
Though some people find success treating abscesses at home, it’s preferable to see your vet because abscesses can become life-threatening if not treated properly. A vet will usually drain the abscesses (perhaps under an anesthetic if it is severe) and then prescribe a course of antibiotics.
To stop it happening again, your vet may recommend additional vaccines for your cat. They might also advise you to let your cat out at different times of the day and monitor their behavior closely to prevent cat fights.
Cat Limping Due to An Insect Bite or Sting
It’s not only bites from other cats that can cause lameness, but also insect bites. Some insect bites and stings can be very painful, even if they are barely visible to the naked eye. If your cat will let you, run your finger gently over their leg and feel for evidence of:
- Isolated swelling
- A small patch of redness
- A raised surface that may feel warm to the touch
If you suspect an insect bite, you might be tempted to give your cat some over-the-counter antihistamine medicine, but this is a bad idea.
According to the Blue Cross, over-the-counter meds made for humans often contain toxic ingredients for cats. They should never be administered without a vet’s approval.
If the sting/bite is mild and your cat is not experiencing any additional symptoms (fatigue, drippy nose, loss of appetite), then your vet may advise you apply a cold compress to the cat’s leg intermittently and wait for it to heal on its own.
Is It a Broken Leg?
When we see our cat struggling to walk, we immediately think it’s a broken leg. But would a cat with a broken leg be able to hide his pain?
It would be difficult because cats cannot walk on a fracture at all, so you’re bound to notice something is wrong. Having said that, a cat with a broken leg may drag himself to a hiding place to lie low for a while.
Severe breakages are visible to the naked eye because the leg will sit awkwardly, or there may be bones protruding near to the surface of the skin. Minor breaks are less obvious, but there may be some swelling and your cat won’t want to be touched.
It goes without saying all cats with a suspected broken leg should be taken to the vet immediately. Your vet may place a splint on the cat’s leg to help it heal or, in severe cases, perform surgery.
This condition is becoming more widely recognized now that domestic cats are living longer lives. Hip dysplasia is typically a condition of old age.
It occurs when the joint at the top of the leg doesn’t fit perfectly into the hip joint. This can cause pain in the joint and slows down movements. But how would you know if your cat has hip dysplasia? Look out for the following symptoms:
- Lameness that switches from one leg to the other intermittently
- Limping is worse after exercise
- Your cat hops around a bit like a bunny
- A cat cannot squat down easily. For example, when using the litter box
- Cat won’t appreciate being touched, especially near the legs or hips
Treatment involves weight loss (if appropriate) pain killers, glucosamine supplements, and specialist anti-inflammatories.
Fibrotic myopathy is another rare condition in cats. It is a muscular condition that causes the muscles to become taught and inflexible. When it occurs in the hind legs, the legs will appear heavy and stiff.
Cats with this condition look as if they’re dragging around one or both hind legs. A vet will be able to diagnose this condition by feeling the band of muscle on the top of your cat’s leg.
Fibrotic myopathy is rare, but it is mentioned here because it is not thought to cause any pain – though it does restrict movement. Treatment is unfortunately not very effective at this time, but some improvements can be made using splints and physical therapy.
Abnormal Heartworm Migration and Limping
Heartworm is a parasitic roundworm that is contracted from a mosquito bite. Cats do not suffer from heartworms as frequently as other animals, but it is occasionally diagnosed.
As you might expect, most heartworms reside in the heart. However, occasionally worms migrate to arteries in the body, such as the legs.
Cats with this condition won’t usually present any additional symptoms besides limping. That’s why it is vital to see a vet if you see your cat limping, even when there are no additional symptoms.
Cat Scooting Across the Floor
“Limping” is quite a broad description that is open to misinterpretation. Some owners think their cat is limping when in fact, their cat is scooting across the floor.
To be specific, some cats drag themselves across the floor (rather than limp) when they have issues with their anal glands or a parasite is causing him discomfort.
Risk Factors for Lameness in Cats
There are some common risk factors which make limping more likely. These include:
- Obesity – According to Science Direct, obese cats are 4.9 times more likely to develop lameness than normal-weight cats. This is partly because extra weight puts pressure on the joints, muscles, and bones. This reduces activity levels.
- Going Outdoors – Going outside can be a healthy and enriching experience for cats, but it does leave them open to insect bites, fights, viral infections, and other dangers.
- Old Age – As cats get older, their joints weaken, so osteoarthritis and other conditions become more common.
If your cat has one or more of these risk factors, then you may wish to intervene. For example, you could try limiting/monitoring his time outside, or improving the nutrients in his diet to help him cope with the natural effects of aging.
Should I See the Vet If My Cat Is Limping?
Cats rarely cry or howl when in pain. Their responses are much more subtle because they want to avoid showing any signs of weakness to potential predators.
If your cat is spending more time alone than usual, he’s lost his appetite, or refuses to let you anywhere near his leg. This is a clear sign you should take him to the vet immediately.
A small laceration to the skin can be treated at home by washing the wound, but you must keep your cat inside until the wound has completely healed.