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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.  

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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: 

  • Lameness
  • Lack of coordination
  • Loss of balance
  • Instability
  • Wobbly or staggering when walking
  • Difficulty walking
  • Abnormal gait
  • Slow gait
  • Difficulty standing up
  • Reluctance to move, jump, or be active
  • Pain
  • Partial or complete paralysis
  • Incontinence
  • Loss of ability to urinate 
  • Swelling 
  • Licking joints
  • Weight gain 
  • Loss of muscle mass
  • Lethargy 
  • Collapse
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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
  • Injury
  • Fibrocartilaginous embolic myelopathy 
  • Intervertebral disc disease
  • Vertebral instability, or wobbler syndrome
  • Lumbosacral stenosis 
  • Cushing's disease
  • Cancer
  • Diabetes
  • Arthritis
  • Botulism infection
  • Toxic poisoning
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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.

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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.

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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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Written by Alyssa Smith

Veterinary reviewed by: Michele K.

Published: 07/11/2017, edited: 02/24/2021

Back Leg Weakness Questions and Advice from Veterinary Professionals

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bully pit

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seven weeks

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4 found helpful

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Hind Legs

Puppies are 7 weeks old and were walking and very active. Approximately 3 days ago 2 of three puppies from the liter are unable to stand on their hind legs. Each favors one hind leg over the other. The mom of the liter passed away about 1 week after giving birth to 9 pups. She fell and badly injured herself beyond a vet's help to save her leg. 6 of the 9 puppies either died 1 or 2 days after she gave birth and the others were still born. The 3 remaining puppies were bottle fed up until 6 weeks of age. They were introduced to food at about 4 or 5 weeks. And up until 3 days ago all were active

Feb. 14, 2021

Owner

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Dr. Sara O. DVM

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4 Recommendations

Hello, they could not be getting all the nutrient that they needs. I would recommend that your puppies see your vet. You can also give them joint supplements to help . Without being able to examine them it is hard to tell you for sure what is going on

Feb. 14, 2021

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American Bulldog

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Four Years

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4 found helpful

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Our dog Pluto started having really bad diahrea the night before last. We though he could of ate something bad because he's always into stuff. Today he started shaking like he was cold and can barely move.

Feb. 3, 2021

Owner

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Dr. Maureen M. DVM

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4 Recommendations

Hi, Yes, food poisoning is common among dogs since they are natural scavengers. Some food intoxications can be life-threatening since bacteria contained in the spoilt food may release toxins causing serious complications. Please rush him to the nearest vet asap. Good luck

Feb. 3, 2021

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pitbul

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3year

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8 found helpful

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Unknown severity

Has Symptoms

Having a hard time waking up waking with a limp dragging back legs

Jan. 27, 2021

Owner

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Dr. Maureen M. DVM

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8 Recommendations

Hi, Back leg lameness can have various causes. This includes neurological problems, arthritis, injuries among others. Please consult with your vet for a confirmatory diagnosis. You could ask for x rays to be done as well as a thorough physical exam. Good luck.

Jan. 27, 2021

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Terrier mix small breed

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Fourteen Years

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11 found helpful

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Falling Over

My elderly dog has been wobbly and falling down since Jan 8, we do have a vet but we are away at this time. Ben hasn’t been eating that much even with putting baby food or chicken broth in his food. Ben does have Kidney disease and is on a k/d prescription diet. New Year Eve he was trying to follow me and he fell down some stairs. He shook it off and was still getting up and walking on his own except for stairs I picked him. I feel that with the sudden change he I has to be put down, I’m very sad about this thought but I don’t want him to suffer anymore than he might be.

Jan. 16, 2021

Owner

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Dr. Maureen M. DVM

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11 Recommendations

Hi, Sorry about that. I empathize but sometimes euthanasia helps to relieve our fur babies from pain and suffering. His back leg weakness is a neurological disorder and at his age, it's hard for nerves to regenerate. This kidney disease also puts his body under more stress. Please talk to your vet about other possible options or treatments considering his history before opting for euthanasia. Good luck

Jan. 17, 2021

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Daniff

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5 Years

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15 found helpful

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Unknown severity

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Weakness Back Legs

Got to the end of a 6 hour road trip and let my dog out to potty and he was fine. Let him in and suddenly it was like he couldn't walk on back legs and they were shaking. Ran my hands over him seeing if anything hurt but he didn't seem to have any sore areas. Within minutes he was back up and fine, thought maybe it was the long trip and just needed to work it out moving. 2 days later happened again out of nowhere and over within minutes.

Dec. 28, 2020

Owner

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Dr. Linda S. MVB MRCVS

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15 Recommendations

I'm sorry to hear this. We would consider a partial seizure, exacerbated arthritis, a neurological disorder such as degenerative myelopathy, hip dysplasia etc. It would be best to have him checked over and the vet should perform a neurological exam and may also take some xrays.

Dec. 28, 2020

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Tyson

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Jack Russell Terrier

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12 Years

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Moderate severity

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Moderate severity

Has Symptoms

Stiffness
Back Leg Weakness;
Odd Response Behaviour

I came home from the shops and my jack russell came to sit with me in the lounge. when he walked in he looked as if he was just stiff from sleeping but the more I watched him the stranger he looked. He was losing control and stability in his back legs and stumbled occasionally when we walked around the house. We live on a farm so he might have eaten something off but I haven't seen any other symptoms yet.

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ozzie

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Shih Tzu

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11 Months

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Fair severity

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Hold Leg Up

my shih tzu is 11 month and when he does a few steps he skips them and sometime favors it when turning from being in a run vet said his hips and knee looks real good what else could it be plays and runs just fine

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Lola Mae

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Bulldog

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2 Years

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Serious severity

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Weakness
Weak Pulse
Weakness Back Legs

Lola was fine jumping and playing then she could hardly walk she did make it up stairs one step at a time instead of running today she doesn’t seam to be able to stand without help

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Moka

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toy poodle

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26 Days

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Mild severity

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Mild severity

Has Symptoms

Wobbly Walking
Wobbly Walking, Bad Bone Structure

Hello, my puppy(Moka) is 26 days old today, his sister&brother are already starting to walk and can stand still on their 4 legs, but Moka in other hand can’t even stand with his front legs steadily, he will wobble and his head will be thrown to the right or left. I’ve noticed that his ribcage’s shape is flat on the side (unlike swimmer syndrome that is flat on his chest), and his back legs are also weak, do you have any idea on why my Moka is like that? and do you have any solution on this? I bought Moka to the vet few days ago and the doctor said that it is fine and it’s only a minor defect on his ribcage (i’m not sure about his statement) and i can’t help to worry and be sad seeing Moka walks like that!

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Lila

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Golden Retriever

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10 Years

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Critical severity

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Critical severity

Has Symptoms

Loss Of Balance
Inestability
Won'T Stand Up

My Golden Retriever is 10 years old, three weeks ago it was hard for her to stand up or sit because one of her back legs was fainting, I saw that she had a bump on it that is quite large but me and my parents decided not to worry about it since she have always devolped benign lumps on her body. 2 days ago both of her back legs started to faint, the back of her leg look swollen and she cant stand up after a long nap since she keep slipping, and when she sits she starts to push herself backwards. I scheduled her for a checkup in less than a week but I am scared of something happening to her, her nose is dry, she barely eats or drink water since it is hard for her to stand up, she does not stands up to say hi to us like she use to, I would love to know whats happening to her, she never been this sick before, help!

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