Cats never limp without a good reason. Even if your cat is not crying, don’t assume that it’s not masking its discomfort. In fact, some cats become accustomed to pain and no longer react.
Common reasons for a cat to limp include trauma, arthritis (joint pain), and infection. Some senior cats overexert themselves while exercising, causing temporary lameness. Your cat could have an issue with its paw due to plant or insect stings, a trapped foreign object, or overgrown nails. Sometimes cats will have a skeletal defect.
If your cat is limping, check for signs of pain. These are not restricted to verbalizations, such as crying. Regardless of whether your cat is in discomfort, you need to address the cause of the limping.
Why is My Cat Limping but Not in Pain?
There is a high probability that your cat is in pain, but it doesn’t want you to know. According to The Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, cats are skilled at masking the signs of discomfort.
In your cat’s mind, pain equates to weakness. Showing weakness means conceding dominance or territory. As a result, your cat may not let you know that it is in discomfort. Beyond verbalizing, signs of pain include:
- Hiding for prolonged periods of time
- Uncharacteristic aggression
- Refusing physical contact
- Reluctance to move or to reveal a limp
- Lack of grooming
- Hunching over
- Lack of appetite
A cat in pain may also purr to excess. Comparative and Veterinary Pharmacology discusses how cats purr to manage discomfort. The vibrations created by purring provide relief to a cat. Managing your cat’s pain depends on the cause of lameness.
Cats of any age can develop arthritis, but it’s most prevalent among older felines. It’s unlikely that a cat aged 12 or older will not be arthritic.
The first sign of arthritis is a reduction in physical activity. Your cat will exercise less and lose interest in play. It will be easy to dismiss this as just old age, but your cat has not merely outgrown toys. It finds the activity difficult or even very painful.
How a cat reacts depends on how painful arthritis is. For most cats, arthritis is a condition that slowly escalates, and it learns to hide the impact. That’s why you have to watch out for behavioral changes in cats.
There is no cure for arthritis. A vet can prescribe painkillers, if necessary, but this is not a long-term solution. Arthritis is treated with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). No NSAID is approved for prolonged use on animals in the United States. Focus on making your cat by:
- Providing a soft bed with plenty of padding
- Applying a direct heat source
- Purchasing supplements from a pet store
- Regularly massaging your cat’s joints
- Ensuring that all litter trays have low sides for easy access
Encourage regular, short bursts of exercise. This will keep the joints supple. Let the cat dictate the pace and allow for regular rest breaks.
If your cat is limping, you may fear that it has a broken bone. Cats experience broken bones due to impact injuries. This may involve road traffic accidents or falling from a height.
If your cat is limping, check the leg in question. Just because a bone is not protruding, it does not mean it isn’t broken. The cat may have a minor fracture. Check for the following symptoms:
- Leg hanging loose
- Rapid breathing
- Swelling around the leg
- Signs of shock
Most cats will not attempt to walk on a broken leg, even limping. The only way to be certain is with an x-ray. Cats can slowly self-heal a broken leg, but the bones may grow back misaligned, prolonging the limping.
If your cat had an impact injury, broken bones are not the only concern. Your cat has also experience nerve damage. For example, injuries to the spine can cause hind leg paralysis.
Damage to the nerves affects a cat’s quality of life. Without the ability to move the back legs, cats cannot eliminate, run, or climb. According to Veterinary Surgery, sciatic nerve damage often requires surgery to treat.
Soft Tissue Injuries
Soft tissue injuries are sprains and tears to a cat’s muscles. The same issues as broken bones cause these. A cat can also experience a soft tissue injury by moving too much, or too quickly.
If the cat is not in pain, a soft tissue injury is best treated with rest. If the cat stays off its feet for 48 hours, it will recover. Offer your cat a soft bed or cushions. Applying ice to the injury will also reduce any swelling.
If possible, keep your cat in a carrier. It should not climb or jump. In more severe cases, a cat may need a splint to manage a muscular injury. Some cats may even need physiotherapy.
Issues with Paws And Paw Pads
Every step that a cat takes places pressure on the paws. If your cat has a problem with its paws, this will result in limping.
Always check the paw pads of a limping cat. The Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery profiles a case of sore hocks in felines. If the cat’s paw pads are swollen, blistered, or bleeding, it will usually be hiding pain. Common reasons why cats experience sore paw pads include:
- Cuts and scrapes
- Burns from hot pavement or asphalt
- Time spent in a cage
Feline Plasma Cell Pododermatitis (aka Pillow Foot)
Feline plasma cell pododermatitis is a condition that affects a cat’s paw pads. As described by Veterinary Dermatology, common symptoms include swelling, lesions, and abscesses on the feet.
This will make it awkward for your cat to walk, potentially leading to pain. Medication is most commonly used to reduce discomfort. Surgery is rarely required. If so, ulcers will need to be removed with a scalpel.
Insect Bites or Stings
Your cat may have been stung on the paw by an insect due to accidentally stepping on a bee or wasp. The area may swell, and walking will likely become more difficult.
Other insects may sting or bite your cat’s paws. For example, fire ants are small, but their bite is excruciating. Certain breeds of spiders will also cause a cat’s paw to swell up, and resultant limping. The bite or sting may not hurt if the bug was small, but can make it harder for your cat to walk.
Certain plants can harm a cat’s paws. If your cat steps on stinging nettles, its paws will feel uncomfortable. This will lead to skin irritation and swelling. Your cat will quickly recover, though it may limp for an hour or two.
Foreign Objects in Paw Pads
If a cat gets a stone trapped between paw pads, it will be unable to walk. This will not hurt unduly, but it will be uncomfortable.
Inspect your cat’s paw pads. If you spot the foreign object, gently remove it with tweezers. If you cannot see anything obvious, turn the showerhead on the paw pad as this will dislodge most small, trapped objects.
If your cat stepped on some wood, it might have a splinter. Remove the splinter with tweezers to prevent it from embedding more deeply.
Clipping of claws is an essential part of cat grooming. If your cat’s become overgrown, they will curl inward. This makes walking difficult.
As cats age, blunting their own claws becomes tiring and painful. Older cats will rely on their owners for nail maintenance. Inspect your cat’s regularly, trimming a cat’s nails every 4-6 weeks.
If a cat is diabetic, it will experience neuropathy, which is numbness in a cat’s limbs. Acta Neuropathologica compares this to human diabetes and the associated loss of feeling in the feet.
If a cat has diabetic neuropathy, it will struggle to walk, which is usually a late-stage symptom of diabetes. Look out for other warning signs of diabetes. These include:
- Excessive thirst
- Increased urination
- Weight loss despite enhanced appetite
Diabetic neuropathy cannot be cured or reversed. The condition is caused by permanent nerve damage. However, by controlling your cat’s diabetes, you can prevent it from getting any worse.
If your cat is overweight, this will adversely affect its gait as additional weight will be applied to a cat’s joints. If this is coupled with arthritis, the problem will be further magnified. Ensure your cat exercises regularly and loses weight.
Bacterial or Fungal Infection
Abscesses are a common cause of feline bacterial infections that result in lameness in cats. These are most common in outdoor cats due to bite wounds and punctured skin due to fighting.
An abscess is essentially a ball of pus that will swell on a cat’s skin. A vet will drain this pus using a syringe. Do not perform this at home.
Feline Calicivirus (FCV)
Feline calicivirus is an upper respiratory infection. Alongside feline herpesvirus (FHV), it is among the most common ailments in cats.
FCV causes swelling and arthritis in a cat’s joints. If your cat is arthritic, you may overlook this development. As explained by Veterinary Microbiology, kittens are likelier to suffer from lameness than senior cats.
FCV is treated using antibiotics. It is not dangerous, although older cats could face more complications due to limited immunity. The biggest risk of FCV is a secondary infection, such as gum disease.
Bartonella Henselae (Cat Scratch Disease)
Cats often live with Bartonella henselae without you realizing it. Most owners discover that their cat has Bartonella henselae when it scratches you because the site of the scratch will swell and itch.
While Bartonella henselae is often symptomless in cats, offshoots of the condition are less so. As The Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery explains, Bartonella vinsonii can cause stiffness and lameness. The infection sparks osteomyelitis, which is a bone infection.
Bartonella henselae and associated illnesses are treated with antibiotics for 6 weeks. After this, your cat will be clear of the condition.
Coccidioidomycosis (Valley Fever)
Coccidioidomycosis is a fungal skin disease that can impact cats. The fungal spores live in the soil, which means that outdoor cats that dig are most likely to be affected by this condition.
Coccidioidomycosis starts with difficulty breathing, coughing, and a fever. From here, the disease causes swelling in the bones and joints. This can leave a cat limping as it will be difficult to move the hind legs.
Coccidioidomycosis requires lifelong treatment with oral antifungal medications. The cat will need to be assessed for progression annually. 48 infected cats were studied by The Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine over 9 years, with just 32 surviving.
Thankfully, coccidioidomycosis is comparatively rare. It is usually found in Arizona, Texas, and California, so be mindful if you live in these areas.
Parasitic infestations can cause stiffness and lameness in cats. Flea bites, for example, can cause localized swelling.
Be mindful of bites from ticks, especially if you live in the Northeast, as limping and lameness can be signs of Lyme disease.
If a mosquito bites your cat, heartworm larva may enter the blood. From here, the heartworm will live in a cat’s heart and lungs. Lameness and limping are the only visible symptoms of heartworm in cats. This occurs when the worm migrates to the legs.
Heartworm in cats is rare as their bodies are inhospitable environments. Most heartworms die inside a cat’s body before reaching adulthood. This means heartworm will be shed through feces.
A limp can be due to a musculoskeletal issue. If this is hereditary, you will discover it early in life, usually in kittenhood. A problem with the bones can also occur later in life due to hip dysplasia.
A ball and socket connect a cat’s hips. As your cat ages, these two body parts can become increasingly misaligned, which eventually means that your cat struggles to walk properly.
Hip dysplasia is more common in heavy-boned cats, such as Maine Coons or Persians. Female cats are likelier to develop the problem than males. Veterinary Radiology and Ultrasound found 12 impacted purebred breeds. Other than limping, signs that a cat has hip dysplasia include:
- Wasting of leg muscles
- Holding legs close together
- Enhanced shoulder muscles
The lighter the cat, the likelier the displacement can be treated on an outpatient basis. If necessary, your cat will undergo a full hip replacement. As always, there will be risks to senior cats undertaking surgery.
Fibrotic myopathy is a condition that causes sudden-onset lameness in the rear legs of cats. The leg muscles waste away and are replaced by scar tissue. This condition is not painful, but makes walking more difficult.
Fibrotic myopathy is likely to be a lifelong issue. The Journal of the American Medical Veterinary Association and The Journal of Small Animal Practice have profiled cases. In both instances, the issue was initially treated with surgery, but returned.
Fibrotic myopathy is rare, and a cat can survive with the condition. A lifelong irregular gait and limp will be the outcome.
A limping cat may be masking pain, so don’t rely on a cat coming to you for comfort. You need to find out the cause of limping.