A detailed guide to hind leg weakness in dogs. Learn the signs and causes of back leg weakness, including sudden weakness and weak legs in senior dogs.
There are many causes of hind leg weakness in dogs and the exact cause is often difficult to establish – even for vets.
Senior dogs often show weakness in their back legs. This this usually develops gradually over time. Dogs tend to get aches and pains as they get older – just like we do.
Some causes of hind leg weakness in dogs can however strike at any age. Sudden weakness, or even paralysis, can be especially frightening. If this happens you should consult your vet without delay.
Dog hind leg weakness shows up in many different ways. The signs depend partly on your dog’s build, strength, age or nature. At other times the specific signs will be related to the cause.
Signs of Hind Leg Weakness in Dogs
Depending on the severity and the root cause of the dog hind leg weakness, you may notice one or more of the following:
- Difficulty in getting up
- Weakness/trouble standing on back legs
- Stiffness in joints and legs
- Signs of pain in the back legs
- Reluctance to be active
- Lack of balance and coordination
- Instability (wobbly back legs)
- Walking with their back legs very close to each other
If you notice any of these signs of you should also look out for any other abnormal physical signs or changes in your dog’s behaviour.
This could include swelling of the back legs, muscle wasting, incontinence, licking their legs or joints, and seizures. Does your dog appear sick – loss of appetite, feverish or lethargic?
When you take your dog to the vet because you’ve noticed back leg weakness you’ll need to give a complete history. This will help them to diagnose the cause of the dog hind leg weakness.
Causes of Hind Leg Weakness in Dogs
Most of the different causes are related to the dog’s spinal column, spinal cord or the nerves that supply the back legs. They can be divided into broad categories.
- Injury to the spinal cord or nerves supplying the hind legs. This is generally the most obvious cause of dog hind leg weakness.
- Degenerative and other diseases. These conditions mostly have a genetic link and develop over time. The most common is degenerative myelopathy, occurring mostly in older dogs. Dogs can also develop “slipped” disks and arthritis.
- Tumors and cancer. Dogs can develop cancerous tumors in their backs from as young as 6 months.
- Infectious diseases. A number of microorganisms and parasites can cause inflammation or paralysis in a dog’s spinal cord, disks or nerves.This includes roundworms and some species of ticks.
- Nutritional disorders. Vit B1 (thiamine) deficiency, caused by an incorrect diet, can cause hind leg weakness in dogs. There are usually other signs as well.
- Hormonal imbalances. Cushing’s disease, characterised by an excess of “fight-and-flight” hormones, has back legs weakness as one of the symptoms.
- Poisoning. Toxins from plants or pesticides, after skin contact or eating poisoned prey, can cause paralysis, usually starting with the hind legs.
- Reduced blood supply. When the blood supply to the dog’s spinal cord is blocked it can cause hind leg weakness or even paralysis.
With so many potential causes of hind leg weakness you can see why it’s important to consult your vet for a diagnosis. We’ll now have a more detailed look at a few of the common causes.
Sudden hind leg weakness in dogs
Dog hind leg weakness from some of the above mentioned causes can be treated effectively. However, the success of treatment often depends on how soon it’s started – especially in the case of sudden hind leg weakness.
A spinal injury usually causes sudden dog hind leg weakness, which is also severe and painful. Take your dog to the vet if you notice these signs – you might not be aware that your dog has hurt himself while playing or from a fall.
With cage rest, and medication for swelling and pain, full recovery from a spinal injury is often possible. Sometimes surgery is necessary.
A condition that vets often see in spring – following on a burst of activity after the quiet winter months – is a “spinal stroke” or fibrocartilaginous embolism. One minute your dog is happily jumping up in the air to catch a stick and the next minute they yelp and are unable to walk.
This condition is caused by small pieces of cartilage from the spine breaking off and blocking blood flow to the spinal cord. Any pain usually goes away quickly and with early treatment there is often a full recovery.
Sometimes your dog could be quite fine when he beds down for the night but the next morning he’s unable to use his back legs and seems to be in pain. The reason could be a “slipped” or herniated disc. Dogs from as young as a year old can experience this condition.
Tick paralysis from neurotoxins injected into the bloodstream is another condition which could cause sudden dog hind leg weakness.
When dogs become weak in their back legs gradually over time it’s mostly linked to genetics and this usually happens in older dogs.
Hind leg weakness in senior or old dogs
Canine Degenerative Myelopathy, also referred to as DM, is the most common reason why older dogs develop progressive weakness in their back legs. It eventually leads for loss of bladder control and paralysis and at this stage euthanasia is the kindest option.
The condition is caused by a gene mutation. It leads to a gradual degeneration of the spinal cord. Communication between the brain and the nerves supplying the lower body is lost. DM is similar to ALS and Lou Gehring disease in humans.
The problem usually starts when the dog is around 9 years old and there aren’t any treatments that can reverse the condition. DM was originally thought to be a condition mainly in German Shepherds, but it’s actually seen in many different dog breeds.
A DNA saliva test to screen for the gene that causes DM is now available. Through screening breeders can avoid breeding with dogs that carry the gene and hopefully the incidence of DM will be reduced in years to come.
Other conditions in older dogs that can lead to progressive hind leg weakness include arthritis, tumors and degenerative disk disease. There are treatment options for these conditions so they need to be ruled out before deciding that a dog has DM.
Diagnosing the cause of dog hind leg weakness
When you visit your vet, be sure to convey all the symptoms you’ve noticed, even if you don’t think they relate to the hind leg weakness.
With the history of the condition in mind, your vet will carefully examine your dog. They will assess the dog’s movements, reflexes and pain sensation. They might do urine and blood tests to check for infections.
Depending on the findings, the vet could recommend X-rays or even a CT or MRI scan. Only bones show up on X-ray’s and they don’t provide a picture of soft tissue problems like tumors or nerve damage.
Keep in mind also that with all the different possible causes of hind leg weakness in dogs many of the tests and examinations are done to rule out certain conditions.
Once your vet has the results of all the tests they can make a diagnosis and decide on a treatment plan.
Dog Hind Leg Weakness Treatment Options
The treatment prescribed for you dog will obviously depend on the cause of the hind leg weakness. And on their age as well.
The symptoms of a senior dog with hind leg weakness might be managed with medications to keep them comfortable. More aggressive treatment options (like surgery) might be available but not recommended.
Your vet could prescribe medication for infections, pain and inflammation.
For trauma and some degenerative diseases cage rest might be enough for recovery. Some conditions, such as a herniated disk, fractures of the vertebra or tumors might require surgery.
A physical therapist could be involved to provide massages, cold and heat therapy, magnetic therapy and electrical stimulation of the muscles and nerves. Later your dog might have an exercise routine during rehabilitation or to keep them mobile for as long as possible.
In the case of permanent disability your vet might recommend devices that support the dog’s weak hind legs – such as a hand-held harness or even a 2-wheel cart for their hindquarters. This will provide your pet with some mobility and help them to stay active.
Preventing dog hind leg weakness
There’s a link between degenerative conditions and general health status. As a pet parent you can help to prevent, minimize or delay back leg weakness by:
- Making sure that your dog gets regular exercise, customized to their age.
- Feeding your dog a healthy balanced diet.
- Making sure that your pet doesn’t put on excess weight.
- Keeping up with the recommended vaccination and parasite control schedules.
- Taking him to the vet for regular check-ups.
My Dog’s Hind Legs Are Weak: What Should I Do?
So, if you’re wondering what to do when your dog has weak hind legs, the answer is to consult your vet right away. When it comes to the spinal cord and nerves, early treatment can often prevent or minimise permanent damage.
If the weakness came on very suddenly, or is accompanied by other concerning signs, you may even consider an emergency room visit.
Your vet will find the cause of the problem and then prescribe the appropriate treatment to address the health issue.
This article has been extensively revised and updated for 2019.
References and Further Reading:
- Coates, J. & Wininger, F. 2010. Canine degenerative myelopathy. Veterinary Clinics of North America: Small Animal Practice.
- Elliot, P. 2018. Hind leg weakness in dogs : when your dog’s back legs give out. Petful.com.
- Thomas, W.B. Disorders of the Peripheral Nerves and Neuromuscular Junction in Dogs. MSD Veterinary Manual.
- Thomas, W.B. Disorders of the spinal column and cord in dogs. MSD Veterinary Manual.
- Vetmed. 2018. Pet’s sudden paralysis in spring may be “spinal stroke”. Vetmed.com