“My dog’s back legs are collapsing. She falls when she tries to walk. What could be causing this and what can we do about it?” This is a complaint I’ve heard many times in the vet clinic from people facing a change in their dog’s mobility.
The most common causes for an older dog’s back legs collapsing, slipping out or hind leg weakness are osteoarthritis, intervertebral disc disease, lumbosacral disease and degenerative myelopathy. And some dogs have more than one issue contributing to their back leg weakness.
There’s a lot you can do to help your dog maintain quality of life. Skip to the second half of the article if you’re looking for solutions.
It’s hard to know which one of these diseases is the culprit without diagnostic testing. Radiographs (x-rays) are required in almost every case to make a diagnosis. Read on to find out more about each disease and treatments that can help your dog regain his mobility.
Weak Hind Legs from Arthritis
At least 25% of dogs will be diagnosed with arthritis/osteoarthritis (OA) during their lifetime and up to 60% have evidence of OA on x-rays (2). OA happens when the cartilage in joints breaks down which leads to inflammation and pain. OA can affect any joint, but the large joints in the front and rear legs are frequently affected.
Large breed dogs tend to get osteoarthritis at an earlier age than small breed dogs. There are certain breeds with a higher likelihood of inheriting orthopedic abnormalities like hip dysplasia. These breeds include German Shepherds, Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, Rottweilers and Mastiffs. My friend over at WorldofDogz.com has a great article about hip dysplasia in German Shepherds but the advice applies to all breeds.
Dogs with advanced arthritis of one or both hips or one or both knees are likely to have trouble walking and sometimes can’t get up on their back legs without help. Pain leads to decreased activity, which leads to muscle atrophy and even more weakness.
Dogs with arthritis may not show obvious signs of pain, but you can see they are painful by the way they stand, the way they walk and the way they have trouble getting up and down from a lying position. They tend to be very stiff-gaited when they first stand up after lying down for a while, but they become less stiff as they move around. You may hear “crackling” sounds when you manually manipulate an arthritic dog’s knee or hip.
All breeds and mixes are affected by OA. The older a dog is, the more likely they are to have osteoarthritis.
Prescriptions and Home Remedies Help Canine Arthritis
Treatment for canine arthritis has come a long way in the last few decades. We have many treatment options from oral medications to stem cell therapy to acupuncture and physical therapy. The basic supplements I recommend for dogs with arthritis are UCII (undenatured collagen), fish oil, and possibly turmeric. I have an entire article on how you can help your arthritic dog even without going to see a veterinarian.
The key points to remember in canine osteoarthritis are keep their weight down, keep them moving, and treat their pain. Most dogs with arthritis can live a pretty normal life with diligent monitoring and appropriate medical care.
Read my article about how to help dogs with arthritis: How to Help Your Arthritic Dog at Home.
Degenerative Myelopathy Leads to Collapsing Back Legs
Degenerative myelopathy (DM) is an inherited disease of the nervous system that causes weak back legs in older dogs. Puppies inherit a gene mutation from their parents that puts them at risk for developing the disease. (3).
DM has been compared to Lou Gehrig’s disease in humans (1). Dog breeds most at risk include German Shepherds, Pembroke and Cardigan Welsh corgis, standard Poodles, Pugs, Collies, and Boxers. DM also occurs in mixed breed dogs. Dog owners usually notice occasional dragging of back feet that progresses to back leg weakness and trouble walking.
A diagnosis of DM is based on clinical symptoms, blood testing, and radiographs (x-rays). In some cases, electromyogram (muscle testing), spinal taps and CT/MRI help confirm the diagnosis. In practice, ruling out other causes of rear-limb weakness is the mainstay of diagnosing DM.
Dogs aged 8 years and older are more likely to show symptoms of DM. Early signs include difficulty jumping, weakness in the dog’s back legs including collapsing, stumbling, splaying out, slipping, “crossing-over” of rear feet, worn down toenails and abrasions on the feet from scuffing. Degenerative myelopathy is not known to cause pain and most dogs don’t seem distressed in the early stages of the disease.
In the early stages, DM may be difficult to differentiate from osteoarthritis and intervertebral disc disease. Inflammatory diseases including bacterial infection, fungal infection and cancer affecting the spinal cord cause symptoms very similar to DM.
Life Expectancy for Dogs with Degenerative Myelopathy
Tragically, there are no proven effective treatments for DM at this time. A regimen of nutritional supplements, special diet, exercise, and various alternative therapies (acupuncture, cold laser, physical therapy, homeopathy) may slow the progression of the disease. Dr. Roger Clemmons, a veterinary neurologist at the University of Florida, has an interesting web site with his recommendations for treating DM.
The earlier you recognize the signs of DM, the better the chance of stalling the progression of back leg weakness. The long-term prognosis is poor. Most dogs lose the ability to walk within 6-12 months of diagnosis.
Urination and defecation difficulties are a major consideration in caring for dogs with DM. Difficulties dealing with these challenges leads most owners of large-breed DM dogs to have them euthanized within 18 months. Smaller breeds are more easily managed for longer periods of time.
Lumbosacral Disease Pain and Back Leg Weakness
Also known as cauda equina syndrome, lumbosacral stenosis, lumbosacral instability, this disease affects the space between the last vertebrae and the sacrum. If you’re looking at a dog, the lumbosacral (LS) area is in his lower back, just behind the two pelvic bones that stand out in that area. Instability in this area leads to abnormal movement of the bones and pinched nerves.
Lumbosacral disease symptoms depend on which nerves are affected. Some dogs have weak back legs and shaking (from pain) while others show limping and back legs collapsing, and some have urinary and fecal incontinence, while some have decreased tone and sensation to their tail. Dogs with LS disease often cry out or flinch when touched around the low back, tail and back legs.
Older, large breed dogs are more likely to have symptoms of LS disease, with German Shepherds being over-represented.
Treatment for Lumbosacral Disease in Dogs
Treatment for LS disease is often a matter of pain management and avoidance of activities like running and jumping. Surgery can help stabilize the lumbosacral joint, but due to the advanced age of most affected dogs and the chronic changes present, surgery is not as common as medical treatment.
Steroids are often used for dogs with acute, severe pain and weakness from LS disease, but NSAIDs are used for long-term management. Acupuncture and cold laser therapy may relieve pain during flare-ups.
One of my dogs (a German Shepherd mix) has suffered from LS disease for over five years. She has stretches of time where she is quite comfortable thanks to nutritional supplements, steady moderate exercise, NSAIDs and pain medicines. Every couple of years she has a bad flare of pain and it can take months for her to return to normal.
I go out of my way to keep her from jumping and running since those activities are likely to bother her LS disease. She’s a healthy dog in every other way, it’s just something we have to manage.
Intervertebral Disc Disease
Intervertebral disc disease (IVDD) happens when the disc cushion between the bones of the spine breaks down and presses on spinal nerves. In dogs, the most common locations for IVDD are the neck and the mid-to-lower back or thoracolumbar area. Dogs with IVDD in the thoracolumbar area sometimes have weak back legs and panting due to pain early in the disease. In severe cases, you’ll see a dog’s back legs collapse or become so weak they can’t stand at all.
IVDD is common in adult dogs of all ages, but older dogs may be more severely affected. All breeds of dogs get IVDD, but some breeds like Dachshunds. Dobermans and German Shepherds are at higher risk of developing IVDD, especially at older ages.
Radiographs can sometimes identify IVDD lesions, but special imaging like MRI or myelograms are needed to know for sure. Special imaging is usually done by a veterinary specialist and requires the dog to be under anesthesia.
IVDD treatment depends on the severity of the disease. For dogs who are mildly affected with pain only and no or little weakness in their legs, strict rest and anti-inflammatories bring improvement for most dogs within a week or two.
Dogs who are stumbling, cannot stand, or have significant rear limb weakness may improve with rest and medication, but it often takes a longer time, possibly months, to recover. Severely affected dogs who cannot move their rear limbs at all are good candidates for surgery.
You can read much more about IVDD symptoms, treatment and prognosis in my article on the topic.
Read all about IVDD in dogs in my article: IVDD in Dogs: Symptoms and How You Can Help.
Other Common Causes for Dogs’ Back Legs Collapsing
Other diseases can cause generalized weakness which is often first noticed in the rear legs. Any kind of cancer or condition that causes anemia (low red blood cell count) can cause weakness. Significant liver, kidney and heart organ disease can cause a dog’s back legs to collapse, but there are usually other symptoms, too.
Uncommon Diseases Causing Rear Leg Collapse in Dogs
Among the less common diseases that lead to young or older dogs’ back legs giving out are tick paralysis, myasthenia gravis and discospondylitis.
Tick paralysis is caused by the toxic effects of an attached tick. It is more common in certain parts of the country. The good news about this one is that simply removing the tick helps the dog recover.
Myasthenia gravis in older dogs is an autoimmune disease that disrupts the message from the nerve to the muscle. Dogs with myasthenia gravis experience weakness that is worse after exercise. It’s not uncommon for senior dogs with myasthenia gravis to have a tumor somewhere in their body, the most common being thymoma. There is a treatment for the disease, but the long-term prognosis is guarded.
Discospondylitis happens when the intervertebral disc and end of spinal vertebrae become inflamed from an infection. Bacteria and fungi are the usual causes of infection. This disease can often be tentatively diagnosed with an x-ray of the spine, but cultures are needed to confirm the cause. Once the cause of the infection is identified, the appropriate antibacterial or antifungal medication helps the infected area return to normal, but it can take weeks.
How to Help a Dog with Back Leg Weakness
If Your Dog’s Back Legs Are Slipping Out from Under Him
Maybe your dog can still walk normally but has trouble with his back legs slipping out from under him. It’s worse when dogs like this try to stand or walk on slick floors. He winds up struggling with his back legs splayed out and trying to get a grip.
The first thing you can do is install inexpensive carpet runners throughout your house. Make sure to put one anywhere your dog usually walks. Some home improvement stores sell carpet runners by the yard from rolls.
I really like these carpet runners from Amazon because they come in different colors and sizes and have a non-slip back built-in.
Some of my clients have tried devices put directly on the dog’s feet to increase traction. You have to be careful with this because if you have to tighten anything around the foot it can cut off circulation and cause serious injuries. For that reason, soft socks or booties are popular. They work alright when they’re on the foot, but most people report they have a hard time getting them to stay on the foot when their dog is collapsing or dragging her feet.
You might check out these soft plastic caps for your dog’s toenails that help him get a better grip. The main problem you will have is 1) some dogs hate having their toes handled, and 2) the caps may fall off prematurely. I don’t think I would bother trying a paw “friction” product made to glue some grippy material to the actual paw pad. I think it would be too hard for most people to put on and again, some dogs really hate having their feet messed with!
Dog’s Back Legs Collapsing and Incontinent?
When your dog gets to the point that they’re passing stool and urine in the house, it’s pretty alarming for most people. I’ve also had many clients tell me the dog is very upset by it, too.
Before you panic, first figure out if he just can’t get outside fast enough to potty there. If that’s the case, more pain meds or better pain treatments. Make sure you help him get outside frequently throughout the day even if he doesn’t act like he needs to go.
If urine and/or stool are dribbling out while your dog is walking, and he seems unaware of it, that’s more likely true incontinence.
In either case, you can try using diapers with a hole cut for his tail, or purchase special diapers made for dogs. You need to change these frequently, because just like babies, dogs will get dermatitis from having a soiled diaper on for too long.
Your Dog Might Love Her Own Wheelchair
Some of my clients have had great experiences with wheeled carts like the ones made by Walkin’ Wheels. Dog “wheelchairs” are made to support a dog’s rear legs so they can walk normally with their front legs. Most dogs adapt well to these and seem perfectly happy to zoom around with the help of their wheels!
Some dogs prefer to go without a wheelchair, especially indoors. For them, a “drag bag” can help protect the back half of their body from abrasions. These work better for dogs under 25 pounds or so, but it doesn’t hurt to give it a try with larger dogs.
The best device I’ve seen for dogs who can still walk but need help getting up or going up stairs, etc. is a vest that has a handle on the top. Dogs can wear the vest most of the time and you can easily grab the handle to give a little extra help when needed.
Is It Possible to Strengthen an Old Dog’s Hind Legs?
Yes, it is possible to strengthen a dog’s back legs! You’ll want to make sure his pain is adequately managed before starting on a rehabilitation regime. I recommend you find a veterinarian trained in physical therapy and rehabilitation for the best outcome (link to find one), but you can get started on your own.
Things you can do on your own to strengthen your dog’s back legs:
- Slow walks daily. Don’t go so long it makes your dog sore the next day.
- Swimming is good exercise as long as the season is right and your dog is willing. Don’t overdo it. Some dogs get so excited about swimming they end up in a lot of pain later.
- Stretching. Move your dog’s limbs through their normal range of motion while she’s laying down to keep her limber. Check out this awesome book on how to stretch your dog: The Healthy Way to Stretch Your Dog. My dogs love it!
- Awano, T., Johnson, G. S., Wade, C. M., Katz, M. L., Johnson, G. C., Taylor, J. F., … & March, P. A. (2009). Genome-wide association analysis reveals a SOD1 mutation in canine degenerative myelopathy that resembles amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106(8), 2794-2799.
- Bland, S. D. (2015). Canine osteoarthritis and treatments: a review. Veterinary Science Development.
- Coates JR and Wininger FA: Canine Degenerative Myelopathy. Vet Clin North Am Small Anim Pract 2010 Vol 40 pp. 929-50.
- Shelton, G. D., Schule, A., & Kass, P. H. (1997). Risk factors for acquired myasthenia gravis in dogs: 1,154 cases (1991-1995). Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 211(11), 1428-1431.
Last update on 2021-07-28 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API