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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. 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.  

Back leg weakness can be expensive to treat. If you suspect your dog has back leg weakness or is at risk, start searching for pet insurance today. Brought to you by Pet Insurer, Wag! Wellness lets pet parents compare insurance plans from leading companies like PetPlan and Trupanion. Find the “pawfect” plan for your pet in just a few clicks!

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Back Leg Weakness Questions and Advice from Veterinary Professionals

Need pet health advice? Ask a vet

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Danif

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5 Years

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Unknown severity

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6 found helpful

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Unknown severity

Has Symptoms

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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6 Recommendations

If it had happened once we would consider maybe he had trapped a nerve or had an ache from sitting still for too long, but as it happened again there is likely more going on. As there are afew things this could be (muscular, neurological or joint disease), a vet visit is needed to get to the bottom of things. I do hope this helps.

Dec. 28, 2020

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Pit Bull

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Two Months

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Unknown severity

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3 found helpful

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Unknown severity

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Weak

My dog is trying to walk but can’t use his to front paws he was fine but today out of no where he very weak having a hard time balancing his self when I pick him up he starts to cry for bad like something is hurting him in his body and another thing it’s like he’s popping while I can be holding him up and it comes out like water and he keeps shaking I need some help or how can I help my dog 😔

Dec. 24, 2020

Owner

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Dr. Sara O. DVM

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3 Recommendations

Hello, So sorry to hear about your dog. I would worry about parvo with him having diarrhea and feeling so bad. As far as his paw, he could have injured a paw that may just need time to heal. Puppies are known for spraining things but this could be a fracture. Without being able to examine him, it is very hard to tell. I would reccomend taking him to the ER vet tonight for an exam and see if he has parvo. Good Luck.

Dec. 24, 2020

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