What are Back Leg Weakness?
There are many different reasons why back leg weakness can affect your dog. These reasons may vary, ranging from an acute injury to something more serious that needs to be addressed by a veterinarian. This is why it is essential to monitor your dog to best determine what course of action you should take as a caring dog parent! One possible reason your dog might be showing signs of back leg weakness is due to an inherited condition. In this case, back leg weakness is a term that is often used to refer to Degenerative Myelopathy (DM), a disease of the spinal cord. In DM, the myelin sheaths that surround and protect the nerves in the spine degenerate to eventually expose the nerve fibers. This degradation of the myelin sheath disrupts the body’s communication between the spinal cord and brain, leading to a progressive weakness that can result in total paralysis.
There are a few theories as to why DM occurs, such as an immune-mediated response, vitamin deficiencies, or a spinal injury, but many agree that it is an inherited condition that affects many large breeds, and specifically German Shepherds.
While DM may be one cause of back leg weakness, it is not the only reason your dog might be showing signs of back leg weakness. If he is having a hard time walking, or he is staggering and wobbling on his feet, this back leg weakness may be a result of muscle atrophy, pain, or nerve damage. Other signs that can alert you to this condition are a reluctance or inability to stand, lameness, or paralysis in the legs. If you see any of these signs, having your dog seen as soon as possible by a veterinarian is best.
Symptoms of Back Leg Weakness in Dogs
Signs of weakness in your dog’s back legs may come on suddenly or develop slowly over a long period of time, depending on the reason for the weakness. Often, there are other signs that can help lead to a diagnosis, so take note of any physical or behavioral changes that occur. Signs of back leg weakness can include:
- Lack of coordination
- Loss of balance
- Wobbly or staggering when walking
- Difficulty walking
- Abnormal gait
- Slow gait
- Difficulty standing up
- Reluctance to move, jump, or be active
- Partial or complete paralysis
- Loss of ability to urinate
- Licking joints
- Weight gain
- Loss of muscle mass
Causes of Back Leg Weakness in Dogs
The reasons behind a weakness in your dog’s back legs can vary. While obvious trauma can weaken muscles and tissues, and age can contribute to the degeneration of muscles and joints, other conditions can wreak havoc on the spinal cord, nerves, and hormones. Causes of a back leg weakness can include:
- Degenerative myelopathy
- Fibrocartilaginous embolic myelopathy
- Intervertebral disc disease
- Vertebral instability, or wobbler syndrome
- Lumbosacral stenosis
- Cushing's disease
- Botulism infection
- Toxic poisoning
Diagnosis of Back Leg Weakness in Dogs
If you have noticed signs of weakness in your dog’s back legs, take him into the clinic to be checked, as many of the causes can be progressive. Relay all signs that you have noticed in your dog, including changes in appetite and behavior and the history of the weakness. Your veterinarian may also ask if your dog has been exposed to any toxins or infectious diseases, such as those found in an animal carcass.
Your veterinarian will perform a physical exam to see if there are any discerning neurological or physical abnormalities. This can also reveal the possible presence of an enlarged liver, a sign of diabetes, or a tumor. A urinalysis and bloodwork will be performed next to determine your dog’s overall health. This will detect toxins and infections, high levels of glucose or liver enzymes, and electrolyte abnormalities. Results of these tests can point to poisonings, botulism, diabetes, or even Cushing’s disease.
Imaging techniques such as X-rays, MRIs, CT scans, and ultrasounds can be used to find tumors, reveal any structural weakness in bones, joints, and tissues, determine the size and state of the adrenal glands, kidneys, and liver, and visualize the state of the spinal cord. Additional testing can include a spinal tap, aspiration of joint fluids, or hormone testing.
Treatment of Back Leg Weakness in Dogs
Treatments can vary considerably, and will be prescribed appropriately after the diagnosis. Any injuries will be treated according to the severity of the trauma. Surgery might be recommended for many conditions, but for others such as degenerative myelopathy, intervertebral disc disease, Wobbler's syndrome, cancer, or Cushing’s disease, medical management may be preferred. Wobbler syndrome can also be managed with anti-inflammatory drugs. Many conditions will need rest, either before or after surgery, which may require cage confinement. Pain medications are often prescribed for many spinal diseases and arthritis. Cancer often uses a variety of treatments to remove or reduce the tumor along with surgery, such as radiation, chemotherapy, and immunotherapy.
Cushing's disease can also be managed through the use of hormone drugs to balance levels in the body. Diabetes will need lifelong management through special diets and exercise plans, blood glucose monitoring, and daily insulin injections. Arthritic animals can also benefit from nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, steroids, and glycosaminoglycan supplementation, as well as changes in your dog’s environment to aid in rest and ease of movement. Various alternative therapies, such as massage, cold laser, acupuncture, and hydrotherapy can help as well.
Botulism is treated mainly through supportive care, including fluid and electrolyte therapy. Any infected wounds are thoroughly cleaned and disinfected, and medication can be prescribed if symptoms worsen, such as in the case of seizures. Therapies for other types of poisonings, such as from chemicals or plants, can include administering activated charcoal or mineral oil to reduce toxin absorption in the stomach, various medications to treat specific symptoms, and supportive treatments. Curious about which health plan is right for your dog? Head over to Forbes' breakdown of the best pet insurance plans.
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Recovery of Back Leg Weakness in Dogs
Recovery is dependent on the cause of the weakness, the severity of the condition, and how soon treatment is begun. For poisonings, timing of treatment can be essential, as some toxins can be fatal.
Many conditions, such as diabetes, arthritis, and degenerative myelopathy, can be managed through an appropriate diet and exercise plan that can keep your dog’s weight under control and aid muscle movement. Intervertebral disc disease can be treated to return your dog to normal function, but it can also progress, and can lead to complete paralysis. Cushing’s disease and cancer can be treated successfully, but they can also carry a guarded to poor prognosis, depending on the extent of the disease and other factors. With lifelong treatments, diabetes and arthritis can be successfully managed. There are many different causes and outcomes for this condition, and it is always best to seek the advice of your veterinarian.
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Back Leg Weakness Questions and Advice from Veterinary Professionals
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