Should my pet still be limping after surgery or injury?
This info about pet limping and pain could apply to almost any orthopedic surgery…
and some of it applies to almost all injuries as well!
Pet limping after injury or surgery is overwhelmingly due to pain. The pain is caused by one or more of the situations I introduce in this post. Continued pain is so common that this post on my website has been the most visited post for over a decade. This most common answers I give to questions about limping are as follows, based on what I have found true in my practice:
If your pet is limping, your pet is very likely in pain. More below ⇓
If your pet has on a bulky bandage, as Jake does in the photo, and your pet is limping, it is likely because of the bandage or cast, that they are bulky…and there may also be pain.
Eating, Drinking, Happy –
Eating, drinking, running, tail-wagging… if your pet is doing some of these things, it doesn’t mean they are not in pain. (Hint: Most pets shouldn’t be running anyway after surgery) More below ⇓
In contrast, if your pet is NOT doing these things (wagging, eating, drinking, seeming happy), that could indicate pain. More below ⇓
There will be general pain on average for about 2 weeks after surgery, because…surgery. Plus, sometimes the surgery doesn’t go well or complications occur with surgery methods. More below ⇓
There may be other pain, on top of general pain, due to overuse of the body part that had surgery and…
There may be pain due to an obvious or a hidden infection. This one happens A LOT. More below ⇓
Lesson is: your pet can be in a lot of pain and could still be wagging their tail, eating well, and chasing prey!
That’s the short answer section.
Your pet is not limping “just because he/she had surgery”
I put part of that sentence in quotes because many times I’ve heard people (clients, veterinarians, clinic staff, etc…) say the pet is limping because of surgery or injury as if surgery and injury are somewhat abstract and causing the pain. Surgery is painful, and torn ligaments and other soft tissue damage are painful, too. Your pet is usually limping because they are in pain.
I try to bring people around to understanding factors other than a good surgery or injury can cause the limping. Pain is the #1 reason for limping. Additionally, injury is painful, surgery is painful, infection is painful, bandages are awkward and may cause a feeling of instability, torn connective tissue may lead to a feeling of instability, and all these factors can contribute to limping.
When we work out a cause for the pain/limping/lameness, then we may work on more correct solutions to the problem.
Your pet is limping because he/she is painful after surgery (or injury) in almost every case.
Your pet should not be limping more than a couple of days after surgery if
1) they have enough of the right pain medications,
2) don’t have an infection,
3) the right procedures were followed in surgery,
4) your pet didn’t destroy the surgery by chewing or with activity.
I have worked with many pets that have limped or been lame more than a full year after surgery. In some cases the lameness has been going on for a few years. Some of these limping cases are because there are problems with the surgery. All of my cases have improved when we have done the right work as best possible for the true problem causing the lameness. This may mean getting x-rays to check the surgery if there was surgery. This may mean getting another opinion if necessary about post-surgical limping. You may need to try out antibiotics if the other factors I’ve mentioned are all eliminated. You may also need to get better pain management drugs plus use them to the best benefit to go with rehabilitation work.
An exception to the “limping due to pain” rule would be as in Jake’s case (above photo), because if your pet’s surgeon is using a bandage on your pet after surgery, the bandage or cast will be a little awkward. The awkwardness will make your pet walk funny. Your pet will probably act a little weird with the bandage in place. They may not want to walk in the bandage, they may be a drama queen, they may take exaggerated movement strides, etc…
Most surgeons have discontinued bandaging after knee surgery.
Don’t worry that your pet does or does not have a bandage after surgery.
Whether they have a bandage or not, most pets will do best with the e-collar around their neck until 2-3 days after stitches or staples are removed if they have had surgery.
The post-surgical or post-injury pet limping is not an abstract limp caused by mystery forces.
The limp and lameness have overwhelmingly turned out to be because of pain, in my experience with hundreds of cases.
With right amounts of pain medications for your pet’s particular situation, body chemistry, and processing ability, the severe lameness almost always stops. Sometimes “right amounts” of pain medications for your pets particular situation” includes antibiotics. The “particular situation” may be a sneaky little persistent infection. Medications for pain usually do not help very much in combating infection pain; usually only antibiotics will stop infection pain.
Next step is often to try a course of broad-spectrum antibiotics. Infections are not always hot, not always swelling tissue and joints, and they do hurt! At the same time, your veterinary team should be checking out the surgery area to see if it is in tact from what they can feel. They will likely want to do another x-ray to see what is going on inside your pet. This is a good idea in most cases; an x-ray shows random surgery failures as well as cloudiness from swelling in the area, among other things.
If the pet limping does not stop after thoughtful application of treatments I have mentioned in this post, then other factors may yet need to be discovered. Again, your pet should not continue limping more than a day or two after surgery if the above factors are met. The same goes for pets that have had re-do surgeries; if they are limping, there are other problems. The main problem in these cases is usually not enough of the right pain medications.
There is probably some “odd” discomfort and/or feeling of instability after surgery or after those injuries that involve tearing or rupturing of supportive connective tissue, and…
Maybe things feel a little “different” or unstable to your pet. Usually you will notice pets being reluctant to walk on slick floors or are using more caution over tricky surfaces when they feel unstable. I have torn connective tissue in my shoulders, hips, and knees, and I find that I guard my body while doing certain movements. Sometimes I subconsciously tend to be suspicious of my joint’s dependability in some situations. I have been active in body science for many decades, and I know my body well.
This body guarding happens in pets, too, and overcoming this disuse is a big part of my work on them and with their humans to achieve better overall function.
I do in-person and phone consults to help people help their pets to solve pain issues. I will write more on topics that are introduced in this post. In the meantime, please search the words “infection” or “pain” in the search box. Please look over the Q&A and some case stories on this site. I have hundreds more stories than I’ve had time to post, and I’d like to post them to help you. I will as time allows 🙂
It is often a LOT of work to get to the bottom of continued limping problems. In my opinion getting to the bottom of limping diagnosis takes so much time because
1) people do not know that their pet should not be limping after a few days in most cases.
3) veterinarians are hesitant to override the medications the surgeon has given.
Sometimes they are not well-versed in multi-modal pain moderation. Most doctors are not taught a lot about pain evaluation and pain control in school. What your vet learns about pain control is mostly from drug reps, journals, through word of mouth from colleagues, from conferences, and personal experience working with hundreds of cases. I have also learned this way over the decades. Personal experience with hundreds of cases is the best long-term teacher if the learner is open to making changes and solving puzzles.
4) In some cases the surgery has failed.
Surgery failure happens most often because the pet is too active, the pet’s body rejects some of the surgery technique, or the surgery technique wasn’t complete. The last event happens frequently in FHO surgeries, in my experience. I have created successful non-surgical programs for recovery from all hip and knee issues without surgery. I have recovered lots of pets that had too much bone remaining on the femur after FHO and the client didn’t want another surgery. In those cases, we followed deep pain control protocol and my foundation-building programs as well as my advanced drill programs.
If you can get your veterinarian to work with you on the steps I mentioned while you are following strict restrictions and a program like mine, then you will be able to solve the limping issues much sooner. I have a local “team” of veterinarians who have come to understand working on pain in a more focused manner. Some are members of IVAPM and have worked on discovering more about animal pain. Some of them also perform acupuncture as therapy for pain, and often the client and I bring one of them onto the evaluation and treatment team. More on this later or elsewhere on this site…check Q&A for now.
These are some basic bits of information for your thought. I mostly deal with continued pain cases, surgery complications, non-surgical interventions, and neurological cases. Daily I work with people and pets to help them pursue avenues to in order to get to the bottom of things and reduce or eliminate pain.
(Revised January 27, 2018. Originally posted 2007)