Cats never limp without good reason. Even if your cat is not crying, do not assume it is not in pain. Your cat may be masking discomfort as best it can. Some cats also become accustomed to pain and no longer react.
Common reasons for a cat to limp include trauma, arthritis, and infection. Some senior cats overexert themselves while exercising, causing temporary lameness. Your cat could have an issue with its paw. This could include plant or insect stings, a trapped foreign object, or overgrown nails. Your cat may also have a skeletal defect.
If your cat is limping, watch for signs of pain in your cat. 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. Treatment depends on the medical cause of the problem.
Table of Contents:
- 1 Why is My Cat Limping but Not in Pain?
- 1.1 Arthritis
- 1.2 Broken Bones
- 1.3 Soft Tissue Injuries
- 1.4 Issues with Paws and Paw Pads
- 1.5 Diabetes
- 1.6 Bacterial or Fungal Infection
- 1.7 Parasites
- 1.8 Musculoskeletal Issues
- 1.9 Fibrotic Myopathy
Why is My Cat Limping but Not in Pain?
There is every chance that your cat is in pain, but doesn’t want you to know. According to The Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, cats are highly skilled at masking the signs of pain and discomfort.
In a cat’s mind, pain equates to weakness. Showing weakness means conceding dominance or territory. As a result, your cat may not tell you that it is in discomfort. It is your responsibility to learn the warning signs. Beyond verbalizing and seeking reassurance, these 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 offer a degree of relief to a cat.
Managing your cat’s pain depends on the cause of lameness. There are many possible explanations.
The likeliest explanation for limping in senior cats is arthritis. Cats of any age can develop this condition. It becomes worsens as a cat’s age reaches double figures. It is unlikely that a cat aged 12 or older will not be arthritic.
The first sign of arthritis in cats is a slowing of physical activity. Your cat will exercise less and lose interest in play. It will be easy to dismiss this as simple old age. Your cat has not merely outgrown toys. It finds the activity required to play difficult, and potentially painful.
How a cat reacts depends on how painful arthritis is. For some cats, arthritis is a condition that slowly escalates. The discomfort becomes a fact of life for the cat. As a result, it can hide the impact. Just watch out for behavioral changes.
There is no cure for arthritis. A vet can prescribe painkillers if necessary. This is not a long-term solution. Arthritis is treated with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). No NSAID is approved for prolonged use with animals in the United States.
Instead, focus on making your cat as comfortable as possible.
- Provide a soft bed with plenty of padding
- Apply a direct heat source
- Purchase supplements from a pet store
- Regularly massage your cat’s joints
- Ensure all litter trays have low sides for easy access
Arthritic cats can still live a full life. Encourage regular, short bursts of exercise. This will keep the joints supple. Just do not exhaust the cat. Let the cat dictate the pace and allow for regular rest breaks.
If your cat is limping, you may fear a broken bone. Cats can experience broken bones through impact injuries. This may involve road traffic accidents or falling from a height. This is not always the case, though. Cats can fall from surprising heights without hurting themselves.
If your cat is limping, check the leg in question. Just because a bone is not protruding, it does not mean it is not broken. The cat may have a minor fracture. Look 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, though. Arrange this, for your peace of mind. Cats can self-heal a broken leg, but it is not advisable. The bones may grow back misaligned, prolonging the limping.
This could also explain otherwise-inexplicable limping. If your cat starts limping several weeks after an impact injury, this could be to blame. If you adopt a cat that limps, try to learn its medical background.
If your cat had an impact injury, broken bones are not the only concern. Your cat has also experience nerve damage. Injuries to the spine, for example, can cause hind leg paralysis.
Damage to the nerves is not something to ignore. It will have a serious effect on a cat’s quality of life. Without the ability to move their back legs, cats cannot eliminate, run, or climb.
According to Veterinary Surgery, sciatic nerve damage invariably requires surgery to treat. If caught early enough, a cat can make a full recovery. In extreme cases, though, amputation of the affected limb may be necessary.
Soft Tissue Injuries
Soft tissue injuries are sprains and tears to a cat’s muscles. These are caused by the same issues as broken bones. A cat can also experience a soft tissue injury by moving too much, or too quickly. These issues are less concerning than breaks. Sometimes they barely even hurt.
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 quickly recover. Offer your cat a soft bed or cushions. Applying ice to the injury will also reduce 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 need physiotherapy.
Once the cat recovers, encourage it to take things easily. Rapid or excessive movement can provoke a relapse of the injury. The cat may not have been in pain after this strain. It may not be so lucky the next time.
Issues with Paws and Paw Pads
A common explanation for a cat to limp is an issue with paw pads. Every step that a cat takes places pressure on the paws. If the cat has a problem with its paws, this will be reflected 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 invariably be hiding pain.
Common causes for cats to experience sore paw pads include:
- Cuts and scrapes
- Burns from hot pavement or asphalt
- Time spent in a cage
Generic sore paws will heal themselves with rest. Get your cat off its feet and allow it to relax. Before long, it will be walking normally again. If not, there will be a medical or physical explanation for the limping.
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 condition can strike cats of any age. Thankfully it is also rare.
This will make it awkward for your cat to walk on. This awkwardness may or may not lead to pain. Either way, it will need to be managed. This is usually achieved through the use of drugs.
Surgery will rarely be required unless the problem is significant. In this case, ulcers will need to be removed with a scalpel. If you catch the condition early, this will not be necessary.
Insect Bites or Stings
Your cat may have been stung on the paw by an insect. Cats may accidentally step on a bee or wasp. The insect will then sting in an act of self-defense. The initial pain of this experience will subside. Swelling and difficulty walking will continue, though.
Other insects may sting or bite your cat’s paws. Fire ants, for example, are small but their bite is potent. Certain breeds of spiders will also cause swelling and limping in a cat’s paw. The bite or sting may not hurt if the bug was small. They can cause difficulty moving, though.
Soothe your cat’s paw with a mixture of baking soda and water. Create a paste and leave this on your cat’s leg for a few minutes. Once you wash it off, the cat should be more comfortable. For prolonged swelling, soak your cat’s leg in an oat bath.
As well as living creatures, certain plants can harm a cat’s paws. If your cat steps in stinging nettles, it will soon feel uncomfortable. This may not be painful, but it will be irritable. The cat’s paw will also swell.
Do not allow the cat to lick its paws. Stinging nettles can be toxic to cats if consumed. Bathe the area in cool water. Your cat will quickly recover, though it may limp for an hour or two.
Foreign Objects in Paw Pads
If you have ever had a stone in your shoe, you will limp until it has been removed. The same applies to a cat. 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 an inconvenience.
Relax your cat and inspect its 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. This will dislodge small, trapped objects.
It is not only stones that impact a cat’s paw pads. If your cat approached wood, it may have a splinter. This can be sore for a cat. Remove the splinter with tweezers. This will prevent is from snapping and embedding deeper.
If your cat has glass in its paw pad, wash the wound thoroughly with antibacterial soap. Even if the cat does not appear to be bleeding, wrap the pad with a bandage. Even the smallest cut can invite infection. Any pain may not be immediate, but it can develop later.
Clipping of claws is an essential part of cat grooming. Even if your cat uses a scratching post, keen an eye on claws. If these become overgrown, they will curl inward. This makes walking difficult.
This will become increasingly important in senior cats. As cats age, blunting their own claws becomes tiring and painful. Older cats will rely on an owner for nail maintenance. Inspect regularly, trimming a cat’s nails every four to six weeks.
If your cat is overweight, this will adversely affect its gait. Excessive weight will be applied to a cat’s joints. If this is coupled with arthritis, the problem will be magnified.
Diabetes is another substantial risk for overweight cats. If a cat is diabetic, it will experience neuropathy. This 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. This 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. By controlling your cat’s diabetes, you can prevent it from getting any worse.
Ensure your cat loses weight and exercises regularly. A diabetes-specific diet can be essential for this. The better your cat’s diabetes is managed, the more quality of life the cat will enjoy.
Bacterial or Fungal Infection
Some infections can cause temporary lameness in a cat’s hind limbs. This will usually be transient. The stiffness and limping will clear up once the infection is treated.
Abscesses are a common cause of feline bacterial infections that cause lameness in cats. These are most common in outdoor cats. This is because an abscess can be caused by a bite wound. Cats are prone to fighting over territory, making this an ever-present risk.
An abscess is essentially a ball of pus. This will swell on a cat’s skin. A vet will drain this pus using a syringe. Do not be tempted to lance the abscess with a needle. Always seek veterinary assistance.
Sometimes, a cat’s limping can be explained by other infections. These are typically contagious infections.
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. This could be painful. If your cat is already arthritic, it may not notice this development. As explained by Veterinary Microbiology, kittens are also likelier to suffer from lameness than senior cats.
FCV is treated using antibiotics. It is generally not dangerous, though older cats could face more complications due to limited immunity. The biggest risk of FCV is secondary infection. Many cats develop gum disease along with the virus. This must be managed.
Bartonella Henselae (aka Cat Scratch Disease)
Bartonella henselae is common in cats. So much so that most cats live with the condition without realizing it. Often, the only way to know if a cat has Bartonella henselae is if it scratches you. 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, a bone infection.
Like most bacterial infections, Bartonella henselae and associated illnesses are treated with antibiotics. Your cat will likely need to complete a course of around 6 weeks of drugs. After this, your cat will be clear of the condition.
Coccidioidomycosis (aka Valley Fever)
Coccidioidomycosis is a fungal skin disease that can impact cats. The fungal spores live in the soil. This means that outdoor cats that dig are likelier to be impacted.
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 is difficult to move its hind legs.
Coccidioidomycosis is a serious disease that requires lifelong treatment. Oral antifungal medications will be used. The cat will need to be assessed for progression annually. 48 infected cats were studied by The Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine over nine years, with 32 surviving.
Thankfully, coccidioidomycosis is comparatively rare. It is generally localized to Arizona, Texas, and California. Be particularly mindful if you live in these areas.
Parasitic infestations can cause stiffness and lameness in cats. Flea bites, for example, can cause localized swelling. While this is not painful, the itchiness caused will drive a cat to distraction.
Be mindful of bites from a tick, especially if you live in the Northeast. Limping and lameness can be signs of Lyme disease. Ticks can feed upon infected wildlife, then bite a cat. This can pass on the infection.
This worm lives within mosquitos. If your cat is bitten by a mosquito, a heartworm larva will enter the blood. From here, the heartworm will live in a cat’s heart and lungs.
Lameness and limping are the only symptoms of heartworm in cats. This occurs when the worm migrates to the legs. This can become life-threatening.
The good news is that heartworm in cats is rare. A cat’s body is an inhospitable environment for this parasite. Most heartworms die inside a cat’s body before reaching adulthood. This means the heartworm cannot do any damage and will be shed through feces.
A limp in a cat can be caused by a musculoskeletal issue. If this is hereditary, you will discover it early in life, usually in kittenhood. A problem with the bones can occur later in life. The likeliest explanation is hip dysplasia.
A cat’s hips are connected by a ball and socket. As a cat ages, these two body parts can become increasingly misaligned. This will eventually lead to the cat struggling to walk appropriately.
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. Purebreed cats are more at risk. Veterinary Radiology and Ultrasound found 12 impacted breeds in a study, though.
Other than limping, signs that a cat has hip dysplasia include:
- Wasting of leg muscles
- Holding legs close together
- Enhanced shoulder muscles
Treatment relies upon a range of different circumstances. Chief among these will be your cat’s weight. The lighter cat is, the likelier the displacement can be treated on an outpatient basis. Massage may be sufficient treatment.
If necessary, your cat will undergo a full hip replacement. As always, there will be risks to senior cats undertaking surgery. Discuss this with your vet. The quality of life afforded by the procedure may outweigh the risk.
Fibrotic myopathy is a condition that causes sudden-onset lameness in the rear leg. The leg muscles waste away and are replaced by scar tissue. This condition is not painful, but it is awkward.
Sadly, 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 quickly returned.
Fibrotic myopathy is rare in cats. It more commonly affects larger animals, most notably horses. A cat can also survive with the condition. A constant, lifelong irregular gait and limp will be the outcome, though.
Remember, a limping cat may be masking pain. Never rely on a cat coming to you for comfort. Some may, if you have a strong bond. It’s likelier that the cat is hiding discomfort, though. You need to find out the cause of limping.