Cats use their hind legs to jump, balance, and run away from danger. If one of their legs is not functioning properly, this can leave them feeling very vulnerable.
Cats don’t express their pain in the same way as humans. As a cat owner, it is your responsibility to recognize whether your cat is in pain or not. We’ll help you determine why your cat is limping and whether or not they are experiencing any discomfort.
- 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 in Cats
- 2.8 Fibrotic Myopathy in Cats
- 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 cats are in pain, they’ll try to hide it so that they don’t appear vulnerable to predators. However, if you pay close attention to your cat’s behavior, you can spot some of the signs. Cats who 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, it 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 and take them 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 they are feeling some degree of pain if they are not showing it.
- Refusing to Let you Touch the Leg – If your cat refuses to let you touch their leg/paw, this suggests it 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 in their skin and bleeds a little, it’ll usually lick the blood away quite quickly to stay clean. If you see lots of dried-on blood on your cat’s leg (in a place they can easily reach to clean with their tongue), this suggests it is very fatigued and may be in discomfort.
- Loss of Appetite – A cat with a minor injury may temporarily eat less because it is too much effort to get to their food bowl. However, if it is refusing to eat even when food is brought to them, it may be in a lot of pain.
If your cat is limping and has any of the above symptoms/behaviors, this suggests it could be hurting. Even if they are not in pain, the cause behind their limp may still require treatment.
But what might be causing them to limp? To help you get a clearer understanding, let’s explore some of the causes in more detail.
Cat Limping Due to Soft Tissue Injury
Soft tissue injuries are fairly common in cats. A soft tissue injury is an injury to the muscles, ligaments, or tendons that surround the bones. These injuries can be caused by:
- Overreaching when jumping and leaping
- 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 it’ll 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 their appetite. Instead, injured cats tend to spend more time alone and purr excessively. The site of injury may feel warm to the touch.
If you suspect your cat has a soft tissue injury, it’s best to take them 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, and bring all food and water to them to stop it from moving around too much.
Does My Cat Have Arthritis?
Arthritis is another common cause of lameness in cats. 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 they are reluctant to put their paw on the floor, they may have injured their paw pad or claw. Cats who 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
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 with 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:
- 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 very easily 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 who spend time outdoors and they can be life-threating if not treated properly.
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.
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
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 catfights.
Cat Limping Due to An Insect Bite or Sting
It’s not only bites from other cats that can cause lameness, but it’s 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 so 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) 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 their pain?
It would be difficult because cats cannot generally 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 themselves 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.
Hip Dysplasia in Cats
This condition is rarely documented but it 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
- 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 in Cats
Fibrotic myopathy is another very 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, it makes the legs appear very heavy and stiff.
Cats with this condition look as if they are 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 the cat’s leg.
Fibrotic myopathy is very rare, but it is mentioned here because it is not thought to cause any pain – though it does somewhat 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 with any additional symptoms besides limping. That’s why is so important 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 them discomfort.
Risk Factors for Lameness in Cats
We’ve covered many different diseases and injuries in this article. Nevertheless, there are some common risk factors which make limping more likely. For example:
- 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, and 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, catfights, 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, try to intervene. For example, you could try limiting/monitoring their time outside, or improving the nutrients in their diet to help them cope with the effects of aging.
Should I See the Vet If My Cat Is Limping?
No one wants their cat to be in pain, but equally no one wants to drag their cat to the vet unnecessarily. So, if your cat is limping, but not complaining, what’s the best thing to do?
Remember that cats rarely cry or howl when they are in pain. Their responses are much more subtle.
If your cat is spending more time alone than usual, they’ve lost their appetite, or they refuse to let you anywhere near their leg. This is a clear sign you should take them to the vet.
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.
Remember, any behavior that’s out-of-the-ordinary can be a sign that your cat is in pain so do not hesitate to contact your vet for advice.