It can be really alarming to find that your dog or cat's having trouble walking. It's even worse if you can't think of any obvious cause and the your vet has no simple diagnosis either.
Leg nerve damage varies in types and severity and it can be really tricky to diagnose. The symptoms, treatment and your pet's chances of recovery often depend on the causes.
Symptoms of leg nerve damage in dogs and cats
Some nerve damage symptoms to look out for are:
Limping or dragging a leg
Licking or chewing the affected leg
Vocalisation – pain sounds like yelping or yowling when you touch their leg, back or neck
All of these can be signs of other types of injuries – broken bones, wounds and muscle damage – or they might be in conjunction with these injuries if your pet's suffered something like a road traffic accident or a fall.
You might notice your pet walking awkwardly or differently to how they usually do. It's because they're trying to compensate by putting more weight on the healthy limbs.
Abnormal gait and lameness is incredibly common. We saw over 15,000 pet insurance claims for it in 2021, making it the leading condition pet owners claim for. Nerve damage is just one of dozens of possible causes.
If the damaged nerve has caused loss of sensation you might notice your cat or dog positioning its limbs and paws at unusual angles when at rest or making unusual limb movements. For example it might have its legs crossed or paws turned under.
Visit your vet as soon as you see any problem with your cat or dog's limbs. They'll be able to work on a full diagnosis to find out if it's nerve damage or something else.
Veterinary surgeon Dr Neerja Muncaster points out that while you as the owner will notice your pet's behaviour and will have the best knowledge of any injury they've suffered, only your vet who will be able to pick up that nerves are involved.
What causes leg nerve damage?
There are three main causes of nerve damage in dogs and cats:
Cancers and tumours
Dr Muncaster says that vets often see leg nerve damage as a result of a traumatic incidents such as road traffic accidents. It's rarer and also much harder to diagnose when there's spinal disease or a mass is disrupting a nerve.
Diagnosing nerve damage in dogs or cats
It can take some time to reach a diagnosis. Your vet will usually have to do this by ruling out other causes for the symptoms and testing nerve reflexes.
To rule out other causes and to find any other conditions that might have caused the nerve damage your vet may try:
Your vet may prescribe a painkiller like Metacam to see how your dog responds as well as that may help give some clues to what's causing the pain.
If the diagnostic work leads your vet to suspect nerve damage, they may refer you to a specialist for an MRI scan to confirm the diagnosis and help pinpoint the exact area.
MRI scans aren't a routine screening procedure. The cost is high and it's usually only recommended when the other diagnostics mentioned have failed.
Fitzpatrick Referrals in Surrey quotes a guide price of £2,000 for an MRI scan while Abingdon Park Referrals in Northampton has prices from £1,500.
Your dog or cat needs to be anesthetised for an MRI scan and the cost is likely to vary depending on their size. A large dog will cost more than a cat.
Dog leg nerve damage treatment: outlook and prognosis
There is no specific treatment for leg nerve damage in dogs and cats. Often it is a matter of time, rehabilitation and recuperation. Any treatment really depend on the underlying cause.
Your vet might suggest:
Before you order anti-inflammtory pain relief medication, check if an online pharmacy could dispense the prescription. The medication is often identical, but more affordable.
If the damage is being caused by something like a tumour, your pet may need surgery or chemotherapy to treat that as well.
"It's very difficult to put a time frame on the healing," says Dr Muncaster. "Sadly, if you don’t see improvement in a few months the prognosis may not be great."
Even if your dog or cat can't make a complete recovery, your vet may be able to recommend a plan of pain relief and therapies that keeps them happy and comfortable long-term.
Pet insurance and nerve damage
Diagnosing nerve damage can be a long road and the cost of x-rays, repeat vet trips and maybe even an MRI scan can really add up.
With the cost of an MRI in the thousands of pounds, pet insurance with a high vet fee limit can help cover the cost not only of all the diagnostics, but any ongoing treatment your dog or cat might need.
All our policies are lifetime pet insurance, which means they have an annual vet fee limit that refreshes each year when you renew. Other types of cover, like time-limited policies or ones with a limit per condition could run out of cover while you still need it because you reach the time or condition limit.
Some pet insurance will also cover complementary treatments that you're referred to by your vet, like hydrotherapy. All our policies cover complementary therapies up to a limit as part of your overall vet fee limit.