A VERY common reason for owners to bring their pets to the vet is if their pet develops a limp.

Sometimes this is sudden and very severe, where the dog or cat may be unable to use their leg; or it may be a gradual onset where the pet becomes exercise intolerant. There are many causes.

I have a very bouncy Labrador called Lucy, who I am surprised has never had any lameness problems, apart from once when she cut her pad on broken glass. She is now eight years old and lively as ever. I do get quite saddened when I see dogs much younger than her who have severe joint problems.

There are a huge range of conditions which result in lameness.

Sprains and strains involving the muscles, joints, tendons and ligaments are common in dogs and cats, just as they are in people. These are often referred to as soft tissue injuries, which differentiate them from damage to bones.

Soft tissue injuries are more common in dogs than in cats. They are more likely to occur in larger, active, overweight dogs. Falling, running and jumping can all stretch or tear these soft tissues. This can result in pain, swelling, heat and loss of function, all signs of inflammation. If this occurs, your pet will often limp or favour one leg. You may find, however, if your pet is distracted, for example seeing another dog they want to play with, then they may well ignore the pain, so it appears that the lameness is intermittent.

The other extreme in lameness is when a bone fracture occurs. Fractures can vary in their severity from a simple hairline crack with little displacement of the bone to very complex fractures where the bone may be shattered into several pieces.

If you have any concerns, please take your pet to your vet, where they will be examined for signs of pain, swelling, heat and instability. If required, your vet may want to take x-rays to determine the problem.

To try to prevent joint disease in older animals, do not allow your pup to become overweight, feed the correct amount of a good diet. Do not feed a high-calorie, high-protein diet to large breed puppies. Limit the amount of exercise your pup gets. Only allow five minutes per month of age, three times daily. This is very important, especially for larger breed dogs. Do not encourage pups to stand on their hind legs and avoid repetitive exercises or unnatural movements.

Lameness in older pets is often due to osteoarthritis. It is also known as degenerative joint disease. Osteoarthritis is caused by progressive inflammation and deterioration of the soft tissue, cartilage and bone in one or more joints. It is a chronic and degenerative disease that leads to pain and decreased mobility. The cartilage in the joints breaks down and friction occurs between bones. New bone is produced around the joints and the soft tissue thickens, causing your pet pain and discomfort.

Osteoarthritis occurs more commonly in old age due to repeated trauma to joints or following old injuries. Some congenital conditions can predispose it e.g. hip dysplasia. Dogs which are athletic, working or overweight are at a higher risk of developing osteoarthritis. Dogs with osteoarthritis tend to be less active and lethargic. They may have problems climbing stairs or jumping into cars. There may be pain and stiffness. Clicks may be heard in the joints.

The treatment of osteoarthritis is designed to reduce pain and inflammation, improve joint function and, whenever possible, eliminate the cause of the osteoarthritis and the arthritic process. This may require medication or possibly surgery.

Overweight dogs should be put on a strict diet to get them to a normal weight. This will put less stress on the joints and generally the amount of medication they require can be reduced. An exercise regime should be started to reduce weight and maintain a range of movement and muscle mass. This will also promote healthy cartilage.

Exercise must be tailored to suit the needs of the individual patient. Our nurses at Dunedin Vets are able to advise clients on the most appropriate diet and exercise regime. Your vet can prescribe medication to ease the pain and reduce inflammation of osteoarthritis.

There are many and varied drugs which can help.

There are non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs which reduce inflammation and soreness in joints. There are many drugs in this class and it sometimes takes time to determine which is most helpful for your pet. These drugs are not without potential side effects, so give your pet the dose your vet has prescribed and ensure your dog is checked regularly, with blood samples being taken to ensure there is no damage to your pet’s liver or kidneys.

Sometimes pure analgesics need to be administered if the pain is so severe. Often drugs are given in combination to achieve the most effective response. A course of cartilage-protecting injections may be advised in early stages or if your pet is intolerant to medication. Nutritional supplements such as glucosamine, chondoitin and green-lipped muscle may also be added to your pet’s diet to improve the arthritic joints.

Recently, a new drug has been developed which is administered by monthly injections. This can be given to both dogs and cats in slightly different formats. This has been extremely successful in any pets we have treated with it.

Our student nurse Katy Tostevin has used the treatment in her very arthritic 14-year-old cat Buttons and she has seen a huge improvement in his quality of life.

He is able to get up and down stairs and even started playing with his friend Sal, a lively crossbreed dog. Buttons has a really shiny coat again as he is able to groom himself all over without being in discomfort.

In fact, the treatment has been so successful that the manufacturers have run short on production, so we are unable to start other pets on the treatment just now.

If you think this is something which could help your pet, have a chat with your vet. At present, we are awaiting in anticipation for more stock so that many more pets can benefit from this new drug. Sometimes new treatments, like magic bullets, do appear.