Leg nerve damage in dogs and cats

May 25, 2022 - 4 min read
This article is not intended to be a substitute for professional veterinary advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your veterinarian with any questions you may have regarding your pet’s care, treatment, or medical conditions.
Dog receiving treatment from a veterinarian

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 your vet has no simple diagnosis either.

Leg nerve damage varies in type and severity, and it can be very tricky to diagnose. The symptoms, treatment, and your pet's chances of recovery often depend on the causes.

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Symptoms of Leg Nerve Damage in Dogs and Cats

Some nerve damage symptoms to look out for are:

  • Limping or dragging a leg

  • Muscle weakness

  • Muscle wasting

  • Twitching

  • Shaking

  • Licking or chewing the affected leg

  • Paralysis

  • Vocalization (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 from 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. 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 their limbs and paws at unusual angles when at rest or making unusual limb movements. For example, they might have their 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 behavior and will have the best knowledge of any injury they've suffered, only your vet who will be able to determine that nerves are involved.

What Causes Leg Nerve Damage?

There are three main causes of nerve damage in dogs and cats:

  • Physical injury

  • Neuro-degenerative disorder

  • Cancers and tumors

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:

  • Physical examination

  • Blood tests

  • Ultrasound scans

  • X-ray

Your vet may also prescribe a painkiller to see how your pet responds.

If your vet's diagnostic work leads them 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 — often more than $2,000 — and it's usually only recommended when the other diagnostics mentioned have failed.

Your dog or cat needs to be anesthetized 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 will depend on the underlying cause.

Your vet might suggest:

  • Anti-inflammatories

  • Rest

  • Physical therapy

  • Hydrotherapy

If the damage is being caused by something like a tumor, 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 in the 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 a multi-thousand-dollar MRI scan can really add up.

A pet insurance policy with no annual or lifetime limits on reimbursement can help cover the costs not only of diagnostics, but any ongoing treatment your dog or cat might need. ManyPets plans have no such limits — unlike those of many other providers.

Some pet insurance providers will also cover complementary treatments administered by a vet, like hydrotherapy. All ManyPets policies cover complementary therapies that are administered by a vet to treat an accident or illness.

Irina Wells
Content Marketing Executive

Irina is a former content marketing executive for ManyPets. She has contributed to a number of personal finance sites, including Loot Financial Services and Claro Money.