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By Nita Webster

A series of informative articles I've written, either whilst doing research work for my degree in Animal Physiotherapy, or as a result of my own interest in a particular area of animal healthcare, and also from my own experience as an owner/breeder of Rhodesian Ridgebacks.

Identifying Lameness in Your Dog

To the untrained eye, intermittent or slight lameness in our dogs isn't always easily detectable. Often, by the time lameness is obvious, the dog is in a considerable amount of pain. This is why it's important to spend time familiarising ourselves with a sound gait pattern and watching how a dog moves in his gaits, namely walk, amble, pace, trot, canter and gallop. Below are two videos which will help you to understand how the different gaits work. 

Spotting lameness in thoracic limbs, (forelegs) is often much easier.  This is because the bobbing, or nodding, of the dogs head gives you a clue.  Watch your dog as he trots head on towards you.  The dog will often drop his head when the sound leg hits the ground, but then jerk it up as the unsound leg hits the ground, in an effort to take the weight from the affected limb, hence the expression "if the head goes down, the leg is sound." Spotting hind limb lameness is somewhat more challenging. 

Watch your dog from behind as he trots away from you. As you look at his pelvis from behind, it should bob, first one side, then the other, as he extends and retracts each limb.  The highest point of the pelvis, on each side, should lift up to the same point as the other side. If one side lifts higher than the other, this is often an indicator of lameness on that leg. The principle behind this is similar to the head nod in forelimb lameness.  As the sore hind limb hits the ground, to reduce the weight on it, the dog will throw the pelvis up, on that side. 

Another indication that your dog is lame, is the length of time the foot is on the ground.  Watch your dog from the side trotting past you. As he passes, watch the free leg, or the leg that is swinging through the air, while the other hind leg is on the ground. Often, a dog will try to reduce the time the sore leg is on the ground by swinging the sound leg more quickly, in an attempt to put it back down as fast as possible.  The leg that is travelling more quickly through the air is the sound leg, the one travelling more slowly through the air, is the affected limb.  

Watch these two videos. The first is a dog with forelimb lameness.  See if you can spot the head lifting each time the left forelimb hits the ground.  This key detail makes the lameness so much easier to spot, in an animal that may not seem lame to the untrained eye.  Early detection of lameness can mean that the issue takes less time to rehabilitate.  A physiotherapist can often make a difference to an animal much more quickly when the injury has been detected before scar tissue has become more prolific, and the lameness becomes advanced. In the second video, note how the dog throws the right side pelvis up to take weight from the affected limb.

There are other factors that can help you to determine if your dog is lame, but these are the most useful.  Palpation  and mobilisation of joints can identify areas of pain or stiffness.  From a visual inspection,  atrophy (wastage) of the muscles, weight bearing at stand, foot placement, alignment, external rotation of the stifle (knee, hind limb) or position of the elbow (forelimb) among other things, can give an indication of lameness also. In the next article, we will examine some of the reasons for lameness.  If you suspect your dog is lame, you must take it to a qualified vet for assessment, and once diagnosed, he or she can refer you to a physiotherapist

who will devise a plan to care for the needs of your dog, aid in speedy rehabilitation and help prevent return of the issue. 

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