Lameness is one of the most common presenting causes of working farm dogs to the vet clinic. Lameness refers to unevenness in the gait due to an inability to move one or more limbs normally with sudden onset or progressive and ongoing.
Lameness in the working dog can be grouped into a few main causes:
Sudden or acute onset in actively working dogs (usually trauma related)
Young growing dogs (usually related to abnormal growth of bones or cartilage)
Degenerative joint disease or osteoarthritis
Examination of lame dogs firstly involves watching the dog move to gauge an idea on the severity of the lameness and to help identify which limb is affected. This is followed up by feeling the leg for any areas of swelling, heat, crepitus (crunching feeling of fractures) or wounds. The joints will be manipulated to check for normal ranges of motion, stability and any signs of pain. Ligaments and tendons will be tested for any signs of laxity and possible damage such as tears. A combination of these tests helps to narrow down the area of the leg that is affected for further testing such as radiographs (x-ray) or collection of samples (such as joint fluid) if needed for further analysis.
Sometimes your veterinarian may also recommend other tests such as urine or blood tests depending on the severity and duration of the lameness. These tests can help to identify an infectious cause.
Depending on the cause of the lameness, treatment can range from anti-inflammatories and rest, right through to intense surgical correction.
For fractures and ligament damage, surgery is often required for the dog to make a full recovery and return to normal work. However, with surgical correction, you must make a commitment to the aftercare which follows surgery and can often take weeks to months before returning to part or full work.
Wounds and infections in the paws or legs may require surgery to clean up, along with antibiotic treatments and bandaging. Wounds which cannot be closed with surgery may require bandaging for long periods of time with frequent bandage changes to help speed up the healing process.
Degenerative joint disease (DJD) or osteoarthritis is a loss of healthy cartilage from joint surfaces which results in bone on bone contact and inflammation in the joints. This can be managed with specifically designed diets which help to lubricate the joints. Fish oil supplements and anti-inflammatory drugs can also be added to relieve the pain associated with DJD. Maintaining a healthy weight is also crucial for these dogs.
Keep young and growing pups on a diet designed for healthy bone growth and development. This is particularly crucial in the working breeds to set them up well for a long working life ahead.
Maintain a level of fitness in working dogs over quieter periods so they are not expected to go straight into heavy workloads. Unfit dogs may break down with pad injuries, toe infections and muscle strains.
Keep working dogs warm and dry in winter with warm housing and, if needed, jackets.
If your dog becomes lame, bring them into the clinic to be seen as soon as possible. In lameness cases, the sooner the dog is treated the higher likelihood of success and shorter time to return to work. For any questions or advice regarding lameness in your working dog, please contact your veterinarian.