Mobility Issues in Dogs and Cats

dog and cat snuggling

By Rebecca MacMillan BVetMed MRCVS

Cats and dogs can experience problems with mobility for many reasons. Most people are familiar with age-related arthritis, but there can be all sorts of other conditions that affect an animal’s ability to move and exercise freely. This article explores some of these diseases plus treatments and therapies that can be used to help your pet.

Symptoms of mobility issues

The symptoms can vary depending on the underlying issue. Many owners notice that their pets are a bit stiffer than normal, particularly after getting up from rest. Your pet may also show signs of lameness, such as hobbling or limping. When exercising, they might be slower than normal and they may struggle when jumping up, such as onto a sofa or into a car. 

In some extreme cases, they might whimper and cry, particularly if a sore joint is handled or stroked in the wrong way. Some animals can seem grumpier or sleepier than usual. In cats, particularly, you may notice a more unkempt coat where they are struggling to position themselves for grooming.

Monitor your pet for the following symptoms:

  • Lameness
  • Stiffness
  • Sleeping more
  • More grumpy than usual
  • Difficulty exercising or jumping up
  • Lack of grooming
  • Pain or crying out, especially when handled

Possible causes of mobility issues

Very broadly speaking there are three main causes for mobility issues:

  • Hereditary – a condition that an animal was born with like spinal deformities or hip dysplasia
  • Trauma or contagious illness – an acquired condition through an accident or illness like a fractured bone or tick-borne disease
  • Age-related – develops as an animal gets older, through wear and tear and age-related diseases such as osteoarthritis and cancer

There are many diseases and ailments that could cause mobility issues, here we’ll explore just a few of the more common ones we see at our veterinary hospital.

Hip and elbow dysplasia

Both hip dysplasia and elbow dysplasia are hereditary conditions that affect dogs more than cats. It describes a condition where the affected joint doesn’t develop properly as the puppy grows. The bones do not fit together perfectly, causing abnormal rubbing and friction to occur. This creates pain and inflammation in the joint and can lead to secondary changes like arthritis. The joint may also be more lax than normal causing the dog to be weak when exercising. Large dog breeds seem to be more severely affected, with these animals often being diagnosed at a young age through physical examination and x-rays. 

Spinal issues

One of the most common spinal issues seen is intervertebral disc disease (IVDD) which affects certain breeds of dogs more than others, including Dachshunds, Shih Tzus, German Shepherd Dogs, and Pekingese. In IVDD, the discs that act as cushions between the bones of the spine either bulge or burst, being referred to as herniated (‘slipped’) discs. These can end up pressing on the nerves in the spinal cord causing severe symptoms that include pain, difficulty walking, loss of bladder or bowel control, and even paralysis. Other spinal conditions also occur. 

Cruciate ligament injury

Another condition commonly seen in dogs, affecting many different breeds. Two cruciate ligaments help stabilize the knee joint, attaching the femur (thigh bone) to the tibia (shin bone). These ligaments can be damaged through trauma, such as sudden twisting or skidding actions whilst exercising, or through gradual wear. Symptoms of a cruciate ligament injury include lameness in a hind leg, swelling in the knee area, sitting awkwardly, and pain when the leg is touched or handled. Surgical repair may be advised for this condition.

Age-related osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis (arthritis) is seen very commonly in older patients through age-related wear and tear. However, it’s worth noting that arthritis can be seen in younger animals too, particularly those that have suffered from joint injuries or malformations. Osteoarthritis occurs when cartilage in the joints becomes worn out and isn’t being regenerated. This condition will gradually get worse over time with joints being painful and inflamed. Excess weight can make this condition worse, so keeping your pet slim will help.

Many people are familiar with arthritic changes in dogs but less good at detecting them in cats. Symptoms to watch out for would include sleeping more than usual, lack of grooming, struggling to jump up on things, and becoming more grumpy than normal.


Broken bones could cause a mobility issue in your pet. Broken bones are usually due to trauma, such as road traffic accidents, trips, or falls. Usually, this is a very sudden-onset lameness and severe, unlike arthritis which develops more gradually over time. 

Tick-borne disease

Ticks are blood-sucking parasites that attach to your pet, burying their head into their skin. Ticks can carry harmful bacteria and blood parasites in their saliva that can be transmitted to your cat or dog. The longer the tick is attached the more likely it is to transmit disease so removing the tick as soon as you see it is advised. Even better, ensure your pet has tick protection to reduce the risk of ticks biting in the first place.

Symptoms of tick diseases may include fever, a lameness that comes and goes, lethargy, joint inflammation, stiffness, and enlargement of the lymph nodes Treatment usually involves courses of antibiotics.

Tick-borne diseases that can specifically cause mobility issues in pets include –

Lyme disease

The most common tick-borne disease in the US, Lyme disease is caused by a bacteria called Borrelia burgdorferi. This can be carried be transmitted from the bite of the black-legged (deer) tick. Symptoms can take a few months to develop. Vaccination is available against Lyme disease in areas where tick levels are high.


Another bacteria that can be spread by ticks is Anaplasma phagocytophilum, giving rise to a disease called anaplasmosis. Like Lyme disease, this is also often spread by the black-legged (deer) tick.


This disease is caught by ingestion of the tick, rather than from the tick’s bite itself. So if your pet eats a tick they are at risk from protozoal parasites, which are usually carried by infected Gulf coast ticks causing American Canine Hepatozoonosis (ACH). Symptoms can come and go, and the disease is never completely cured, but ongoing treatment can help keep it under control.

Ways of diagnosing mobility problems

Your veterinarian will begin by examining your pet to assess them for signs of lameness and pain. Depending on the findings of this examination, your vet may suggest further tests.

Blood samples can be useful to check your pet’s hematology and biochemistry, which provide a screen of their overall health. This can help determine if there are other underlying disease processes going on. There are also specific blood tests that can check for some of the tick-borne diseases too. 

Diagnostic imaging may be the next step. Radiographs (x-rays) are a good starting point for many conditions. This can help the veterinarian visualize your pet’s bones and also assess their joints for any changes that could indicate disease.

In some instances, joint taps may be warranted, whereby samples of fluid are obtained from your pet’s joints via a small needle for analysis. This helps determine whether there is an infection, or any suspicious cells present.

If your cat or dog has an issue with their spine then they may require more advanced imaging. CT or MRI scans are used to visualize the spinal cord in more detail. Samples of spinal fluid can also be obtained for analysis. 

Possible treatment options

Treatment will depend on the underlying cause of your pet’s illness. Many conditions benefit from pain relief, the most used being Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatories (NSAIDs). These drugs act as pain killers but also help with inflammation too. They can be used for short-term issues as well as longer-term complaints. Other painkillers may also be necessary – your veterinarian will discuss this with you.  

Infectious diseases or infections within joints will usually benefit from antibiotic treatment.

Some conditions such as cruciate ligament injury or spinal disorders may do best with surgical intervention.

In many cases, complementary therapies such as hydrotherapy and physiotherapy can be effective at helping to build muscle mass and to gently exercise stiff joints. Joint supplements are used in both cats and dogs too, promoting healthy cartilage, the buffer that helps provide cushioning in the joint.

Keeping your pet at a lean fit weight will also help with any underlying joint disease, by ensuring excessive pressure is not being put on diseased joints. A good quality complete pet food, appropriate for their age and lifestyle, will also help to keep your cat or dog healthy.


There are some basic things you can do to help your pet stay healthy such as keeping them at a healthy weight and ensuring they have regular tick treatments to reduce the risk of tick-borne infections. Despite this, there are an array of conditions that could affect the mobility of both cats and dogs in their lifetime.

Our veterinarians are experienced at dealing with mobility issues and will be able to help diagnose and treat your pet. If you suspect something is not quite right then make sure you book an appointment with us to get it checked out.


What is the best treatment for animals with arthritis?

No one treatment is the most effective, as each pet and condition is different. Often a combination of medications and complementary therapies like hydrotherapy tends to work best. Keeping your pet at a healthy weight and providing regular exercise in moderation is also helpful.

What can pets take for stiff and painful joints?

Medication-wise, non-steroidal anti-inflammatories are the most common drug used in both dogs and cats, alongside complementary medications like joint supplements. Other available drugs exist, but these vary in their suitability. Your veterinarian will be able to advise you on the best type of pain relief to use for your animal’s condition, as all pet painkillers are prescription drugs.

What are the signs of Lyme disease in dogs?

Symptoms of Lyme disease vary but include fever, a shifting or transient lameness, reduced appetite, lethargy, joint inflammation, and enlargement of the lymph nodes. If you have an animal that is showing these symptoms book an appointment for an examination as soon as possible.

How common is Lyme disease in dogs?

Worldwide, Lyme disease is one of the most common diseases transmitted by ticks, and cases have been reported in every US state. States that are particularly affected include the northeast, and New York State has one of the highest incidences of Lyme disease in the US. Cases are on the rise, so speak to your veterinarian about tick control treatments and whether a preventative vaccination against Lyme disease would be appropriate for your pet.

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