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What are Atrophy of Muscles?

Aging dogs will begin to suffer from atrophy of muscles especially when they have a reduction of physical activity. They may be suffering from bone and joint pain from arthritis. There will also be a reduction in growth hormones that causes your dog to be less able to process protein, which is necessary to build and maintain muscle mass. Large breed dogs will generally age faster than smaller breed dogs. Senior dogs that suffer from atrophy of muscles will generally come on slowly and will appear in the hind legs and hips. If you notice severe muscle atrophy or atrophy of the muscles in the neck and head, you should immediately contact your veterinarian. 

There are certain illnesses and diseases that can cause atrophy of muscles in dogs. There are usually other symptoms that will help your veterinarian properly diagnose the illness. Many times myositis or inflammation of the muscle can cause atrophy of the muscles. Myositis is caused by an abnormal reaction of your dog’s immune system against the muscles. This can happen to only one muscle or to a group of muscles. Degenerative myelopathy is another disease that affects the spinal cord and then the limbs. Muscle atrophy, unsteady gait and paralysis are some of the symptoms of degenerative myelopathy.

Atrophy of muscles in dogs is very common in aging dogs, dogs that are ill or dogs that cannot exercise properly. Muscle atrophy is when there is a loss of muscle mass. It is noticeable when parts of your dog’s body appear weaker and thinner than usual. Generally, the hind legs, hips, face or neck will look noticeably thinner due to the loss of muscle mass.

Symptoms of Atrophy of Muscles in Dogs

Atrophy of muscles in dogs can come on slowly due to aging or it can quickly occur, causing a younger dog to look sunken or thinner. Any time you notice that there is a difference in your dog’s muscles, either they look swollen or thinner, you need to have your veterinarian look your dog over. Your veterinarian will need to determine if the changes are normal or if there is an underlying condition that needs to be addressed. Symptoms of atrophy of muscles in dogs include:

  • Progressive rear limb weakness
  • Ataxia
  • Limbs unable to support your dog’s weight
  • Paw dragging
  • Crossing the legs as they stand or walk
  • Thinner, sunken muscles
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Causes of Atrophy of Muscles in Dogs

Atrophy of muscles in dogs can occur for several different reasons. An aging dog can experience atrophy of muscles. As dogs age, their nutritional needs change and they are not able to process protein in the same way. Therefore, senior dogs will usually need a specialized diet with easily processed protein sources to help them maintain muscle mass.

Illness or disease can also cause your dog to experience atrophy of muscles. If your dog experiences quick atrophy of the muscles, then you will need to have your veterinarian determine what is causing the problem. 

Simply not using their muscles can cause your dog to experience atrophy of muscles. Dogs that do not get much exercise or confined to small cages will not be able to develop muscle tone and their muscles will then atrophy from disuse.

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Diagnosis of Atrophy of Muscles in Dogs

Your veterinarian will begin by taking your dog’s medical history as well as asking questions about your dog’s normal daily activities and exercise routine. Your veterinarian will try to determine if your dog’s atrophy of muscles is from aging, illness or disuse. A physical examination will be conducted allowing your veterinarian to feel for any lumps or masses that could be causing problems. 

A complete blood count, biochemistry panel, urinalysis and fecal exam will be conducted to rule out possible causes. X-rays, CT scan and MRI may help your veterinarian determine the cause of your dog’s muscle atrophy. An ultrasound may also be conducted to rule out degenerative myelopathy or intervertebral disc disease.

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Treatment of Atrophy of Muscles in Dogs

Once your veterinarian has determined the cause of your dog’s atrophy of muscles, they will discuss with you the different treatment options. If your dog is not suffering from an illness or disease, then a regiment of regular exercise and proper nutrition will be prescribed. If your dog is overweight, they may need to be put on a low-calorie diet with plenty of exercise to build up their muscle tone and mass. 

Dogs that are suffering from an illness or disease may be given large doses of steroids to initially treat any inflammation and control a disease. Steroids do suppress the immune system and using too much can cause infection or even cancer. Your veterinarian may opt to put your dog on a pain management treatment plan that would include NSAIDS instead of steroids such as prednisone.

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Recovery of Atrophy of Muscles in Dogs

Generally, dogs that are suffering from atrophy of muscles due to aging or from disuse will have a good prognosis. They will need to maintain a healthy exercise program that is designed to build muscle and be given appropriate nutrition for their age and activity level.

Dogs that are suffering from atrophy of muscles due to an illness or disease will have a more guarded prognosis. Usually these dogs will be able to have their pain and other symptoms managed for a time but eventually their quality of life suffers significantly and your veterinarian will recommend euthanasia.

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Atrophy of Muscles Questions and Advice from Veterinary Professionals

Need pet health advice? Ask a vet

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Chiweenie

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Three Months

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Unknown severity

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0 found helpful

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Weight Loss, Muscle Loss, Vomiting

What would cause my puppy to lose weight and muscle mass so quickly. He's had a couple vomiting spells but nothing major.

Aug. 23, 2020

Owner

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Dr. Michele K. DVM

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Thank you for your question. I'm sorry that your puppy is not doing well. Things that are high on my list as far as what might cause that would be parasites, or infectious diseases. If he is not gaining weight, and continues to have problems, the best thing to do for him would have him seen by a veterinarian. They can look at a stool sample, examined him, and see what might be going on so that they can give you options for treatment. I hope that he feels better soon.

Aug. 23, 2020

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Mastiff cross

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3.5 y

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Concaved Shoulder Muscle

Only noticed yesterday that my dog has a 'dent' in one of her shoulders. She does not appear to be in any pain or discomfort. She is walking & running as normal

Aug. 7, 2020

Owner

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Dr. Michele K. DVM

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Thank you for your question. Large breed dogs can develop problems with their joints and muscles that start off very subtly, before they get worse. If you noticed that this dent in the muscle is continuing, or she has any signs of mild lameness, then it would be best to have her seen by a veterinarian, as they can examine her and assess her musculoskeletal function. I hope that everything goes well for her

Aug. 8, 2020

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Boxer mix

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Eight Years

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Unknown severity

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1 found helpful

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Unknown severity

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Swollen Limb, Sunken Muscles, Limping, Hip/Leg Hot To Touch

Limb removal in Sept due to cancer. Knot on hip showed up a couple weeks ago and we assumed (as did our vet) that the cancer was back but xray showed it was a hematoma with massive swelling through her pelvis and fluid in her chest. She was kept in office and had iv antibiotics through the weekend. Friday, she stopped using her leg and was prescribed prednisone, he wanted to keep her but we needed time with her as we were told this was last ditch effort. Today, the limb is swollen nearly smooth. Do you have any advice or suggestions as she's our baby and we want her healthy and here. Please!

Aug. 2, 2020

Owner

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Dr. Ellen M. DVM

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Hello, and thank you for your question. I am so sorry for everything you're going through. That truly sounds so stressful, and I am so sorry that your pup and your family are having such a hard time. I can't really guess as a cause to the hematoma, but I am concerned that either the hematoma is putting pressure on the blood vessels in the leg, causing it to become swollen, or that there is a blood clot or other issue preventing blood flow or lymph flow out of the leg, leading to the swelling. It sounds like your veterinarian has been very thorough. The only other suggestion I would have at this point would be to ask about referral to a specialist if you want to know if there's anything else to try. There may be an internal medicine specialist or oncology specialist in your area that would be able to give you some more information. You could ask your vet about being referred if that's something you're interested in, but it may be time-sensitive if she is not doing well or in pain. I'm so sorry that I can't help more, but it sounds like your veterinarian has done everything he can so far to keep her comfortable. I truly hope that she starts feeling better soon. Best of luck.

Aug. 3, 2020

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Zeus

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Black Lab

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2 Years

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Serious severity

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Loss Of Muscles Not Walking Drags P

Zeus is almost 2 years old lab/ pit mix. He was injured a few months ago playing rough with his brother. All we heard was him yelp loud and began to limp on right front leg. After a couple weeks I took him into vet and they did xrays. Said everything looked good and put him on an antinflammatory med. Sent us on our way. 2 weeks later he was not walking on it at all. We took him back in and another set of x rays up on shoulder still showed nothing. She gave him pain meds Tramadol. Now a month later he has lost all the muscle in his shoulder. He wont walk on left and drags his front paw. He has lost weight and looks so said. He doesn't dry out in pain when you touch his leg or paw or anything BUT if you touch his back spine his hair and skin literally jumps.

Sept. 24, 2018

Zeus' Owner

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Hootie

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Pit bull

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12 Years

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Serious severity

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Sore Throat
Running Nose
Swollen Nose
Watering Eyes
Sunken Skull

muscle atrophy top of dogs head since started with swollen runny nose and eyes a couple of weeks ago. Has felt feverish a couple of times. Runs, eats, drinks most times fine. Large dog for a pit. Outside of nose is dry like a brillo pad

Aug. 24, 2018

Hootie's Owner

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There are a few possible conditions including myositis, some hormonal conditions among other causes; but if there is a lot of muscle wasting you should visit your Veterinarian for an examination to help narrow in on a specific cause. Without examining Hootie myself I cannot really weigh in with a specific cause. Regards Dr Callum Turner DVM

Aug. 24, 2018

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Bella

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Labrador Retriever

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6 Years

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Anemic, Very Lethargic

Suddenly vomited large amount of blood vomit, lathargic, very low white cell count, very bad breath, anemic. Vet is unsure how to proceed. they seem to think we should just put her down

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Bentley

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Labrador Retriever

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11 Years

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Atrophy Of The Facial Area.

Our 11 year old female chocolate lab has severe atrophy in the facial area. Only in the facial area. The vet says he thinks it is an atypical kind due to the fact that my dog is eating dry food normally and has no jaw pain. Vet can open her mouth wide and she doesn't yelp or complain. So we can do a biopsy, but the likely treatment would be steriods, but that is used to treat the pain, which she does not have. Is there any supplement I can give her to help with the atrophy. She does take thyroid medicine and we checked her levels and they are fine. The atrophy is severe enough that her eyes are sunken in.

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Leo

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Black Labrador

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11 Years

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Excessive Drinking Muscle Atrophy

My 11 year black lab got diagnosed with diabetes today. We noticed over the last 2 weeks excessive drinking and urinating . He has lost 10 lbs in 3 months and cannot get himself up to go for a walk or stand up even. Vet said it could be muscle atrophy of his back legs. He takes insulin now and in 2 weeks he will be regulated as far as diabetes. Any ideas on how to help reverse the muscle atrophy ?

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MAGGIE

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Olde English Bulldogge

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11 Years

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Critical severity

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1 found helpful

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Muscle Wasting

my 11-year-old old English Bulldog has been so healthy except food allergies that affect her skin and eyes. We found out that all she could eat was turkey, fish, pork, and eggs with no grains or potatoes. She was fine through Christmas when I had to start adding bacon or eggs to her salmon kibbles to make her eat. By New years I noticed her head and face losing muscle, along with he not eating a full bowl of kibbles and even leaving bacon. She was prescribed a daily galliparant for hip pain for about 6 months. by New Years her lack of appitite and loss of maticular muscle was apparent. The vet said it is neurological in nature, although her blood work is normal. I fell like we only have a few days left. I am heartbroken. We started Cerenia. On day 4. She has ingested a little real salmon and yogurt. She is so tired. Is this the end?

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Pretzels

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pitbull

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11 Years

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Serious severity

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Serious severity

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Sunken Eye, Sunken Head

I have a pit mix. She is 11 years old. I took her into the vet recently and found out she has arthritis, and the left side of her head is sinking in. Over the past couple of weeks it has gotten worse. The vet gave us meds for arthritis but that was it. She is no longer limping, she still wants to play, but when we play fetch she will end up hurting herself, so things are not the same anymore. I even notice that when she drinks water, there is water on the floor because it seems like she is not using her mouth properly or maybe she is not swallowing? Not sure. The vet told us that she still saw quality of life and it was not time to put her down. I can tell that the time is coming, so I am going to let her do her thing. If I start seeing symptoms of jaw issues, I know I will have to take her in and put her to sleep. The meds we have helped with pain but it almost time her for her to go.