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A number of things can cause older dogs’ back legs to collapse. Common causes of hind leg weakness in dogs include osteoarthritis, degenerative myelopathy, lumbosacral instability, and intervertebral disc disease.
In this article, we will explore the four primary causes of hind leg weakness in dogs. Additionally, we will provide practical tips on improving your dog’s mobility, including making adjustments to your home environment, using assistive devices, and implementing exercises to strengthen their weak back legs.
- Back leg weakness is common in older dogs and often results from age-related changes.
- You can help your dog by treating their underlying diseases and using adaptive devices.
- Regular exercise and physical therapy can preserve a dog’s remaining rear leg strength.
Symptoms Associated with an Old Dog’s Back Legs Collapsing
Weakness and collapsing back legs may develop gradually in older dogs. Here are some of the most common symptoms to watch for:
- Back legs giving out and shaking/trembling
- Stumbling or tripping
- Drags back feet when walking
- Slower going up the stairs
- Jumping on furniture less
- Slow getting up from lying down
- Reluctant to run
- Reluctant to jump into the car
- Worn down toenails on back feet from scuffing
- Thigh/hip muscle atrophy
- Change in tail position
- Falling with back legs splayed out
- Back legs become spastic/ involuntary kicking
- Takes smaller steps with back feet
Top Causes of Back Leg Weakness in Dogs
Osteoarthritis, also known as degenerative joint disease (DJD), is a condition that affects the joints in dogs. It occurs when the protective cartilage in the joints starts to break down, leading to pain and stiffness.
DJD can be classified as primary or secondary. Primary DJD is usually associated with aging and develops without a specific cause. Secondary DJD, on the other hand, is caused by factors like joint injuries, ligament damage, hip dysplasia, or joint incongruity. In both types, DJD involves a gradual process of joint damage, affecting the cartilage, bones, and ligaments.
Large-breed dogs tend to get OA at an earlier age than small-breed dogs. Hip dysplasia and other orthopedic problems predispose large dogs and occur more often in the following breeds:
- German Shepherd
- Labrador Retriever
- Golden Retriever
Common symptoms include limping, stiffness, difficulty in getting up or lying down, hind leg weakness and reluctance to engage in physical activities. Management typically involves a combination of medication, weight management, exercise modification, and supportive therapies to alleviate pain and improve the dog’s quality of life.
Degenerative Myelopathy (DM) is a nervous system abnormality that affects older dogs, causing progressive weakness in their back legs. It’s an inherited condition passed down through generations (3), with certain breeds being more susceptible including
- German Shepherds
- Pembroke and Cardigan Welsh Corgis
- Standard Poodles
DM shares similarities with Lou Gehrig’s disease in humans. (1) The problem is more likely to occur in dogs aged 8 years and older.
Initially, dog owners may notice occasional dragging of the back feet, which worsens over time and eventually leads to an inability to walk. Other early symptoms of DM in dogs include
- Difficulty jumping
- Collapsing back legs
- Legs splaying out
- Crossing over of rear feet
- Worn-down toenails
- Foot abrasions from scuffing
Fortunately, DM is not associated with pain, and most dogs do not appear distressed in the initial stages.
DM symptoms are similar to those seen in dogs with osteoarthritis, IVDD, or inflammatory diseases of the nervous system. Careful evaluation and thorough testing are necessary to accurately identify the cause.
Lumbosacral instability, also known as cauda equina syndrome or lumbosacral stenosis, is a problem that affects the space between a dog’s last vertebrae and sacrum. The lumbosacral (LS) region is located in the lower back, just in front of the prominent pelvic bones.
Instability in the LS spine can result in the pinching of nerves exiting the spine in the area. This pressure on nerves leads to the symptoms seen in dogs with LS instability:
- Leg weakness
- Pain when tail and legs are touched
- Urinary and fecal incontinence
- Decreased muscle tone in the hind legs and tail
- Reduced sensation in the tail
Some dog breeds are more prone to developing lumbosacral disease. These include:
- German Shepherds
- Golden Retriever
- Great Dane
- Labrador Retriever
My Experience with Lumbosacral Disease
One of my dogs has suffered from LS disease for over five years. She has stretches of time where she is quite comfortable thanks to nutritional supplements, regular 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 try to keep her from jumping and running since those activities cause her pain the next day. She’s a healthy dog in every other way, it’s just something we have to manage.
Intervertebral Disc Disease
Intervertebral disc disease (IVDD) is a condition that commonly affects dogs and involves the deterioration of the discs between the bones in their spine. These discs, which act as cushions, can degenerate over time, leading to the compression of spinal nerves.
IVDD can cause back pain and various neurological symptoms in dogs, such as limb weakness and even paralysis in the advanced stages of the disease. The condition is more frequently observed in certain dog breeds, including
- American Cocker Spaniel
- Bassett Hound
- German Shepherd
- Shih Tzu
Home Care Tips for Dogs with Weak Back Legs
If your senior dog is experiencing hind leg weakness, there are several ways you can improve their quality of life. Here are some ideas that my clients and I have found helpful…
- Adaptive furnishings such as carpet runners on slick floors
- Braces, socks and booties
- Plastic nail caps
- Dog wheelchairs
- Harnesses with handles so you can help support their weight
- Rear leg protectors
- Re-usable pants/diapers for incontinent dogs
Dogs with weak legs often find it challenging to stand and walk on slippery wood and tile surfaces. Many older dogs end up struggling, with their back legs splayed out, in an attempt to gain traction.
One simple solution is to install affordable carpet runners throughout your house. Place them in areas where your dog frequently walks. You can find carpet runners sold by the yard in rolls at home improvement stores.
I love these carpet runners from Amazon because they come in different colors and sizes and have a non-slip backing.
Braces, Socks & Booties
A few of my clients have experimented with back leg braces to offer mechanical support for their dogs. Unfortunately, most people find braces difficult to fit so they are neither too loose nor so tight that they cause injury to the dog.
Due to these challenges, many people prefer using soft socks or booties to improve their dog’s foot traction. These present the same problems: they’re too loose and fall off or they’re too tight and cut off circulation to the foot.
Be very cautious using any device applied to your dog’s feet or legs. Make sure it is comfortable and not tight enough to restrict circulation. It is important to remove these devices daily to make sure the foot or leg is clean and healthy underneath it.
Plastic Toenail Caps
Consider using these soft plastic caps for your dog’s toenails to enhance their grip on smooth floors. However, there are a couple of challenges to keep in mind. Firstly, some dogs may resist having their toes handled, which can make applying the caps a bit tricky. Secondly, there is a possibility that the caps may come off earlier than anticipated.
You will find paw grip products that are applied directly to the dog’s paw pads. These tend to be a challenge to apply to a dog’s sensitive feet and may wear off quickly.
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!
Other Devices to Help Dogs with Weak Hind Legs
A “drag bag” is a dog mobility assistance device for indoor use. It allows a dog with weak rear limbs to pull their body with their front legs while protecting from abrasions. While these are more suitable for smaller dogs, it’s worth trying with larger dogs as well.
For dogs that can still walk but need assistance with activities like getting up or climbing stairs, a vest with a handle on the top is highly recommended. Your dog can wear the vest regularly, and you can conveniently grab the handle to provide extra support when necessary. This device has proven to be the most effective in aiding dogs with mobility.
Dealing with Incontinence
Urine and stool incontinence are common in older dogs with decreased mobility. There may be multiple factors contributing to the problem.
Consider whether your dog’s pain is controlled adequately. Is he able to get outside quickly enough to potty when he needs to? Is he sleeping too much and needs to be reminded to go outside more often?
How to Strengthen an Old Dog’s Hind Legs
It is sometimes possible to strengthen a dog’s hind legs. Please make sure their pain is adequately controlled before starting a rehabilitation regime.
I recommend you find a veterinarian trained in rehabilitation for the best outcome (link to find one), but you can get started on your own with the following tips.
- Take slow walks every day. Even though he might need a few minutes to warm up, regular walking will build and maintain muscle tone and nerve signals to your dog’s hind legs. Make the walks short enough that your dog is not 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!
Hind leg weakness is common in dogs, especially those over the age 10 years of age. The most common causes include osteoarthritis, degenerative myelopathy, lumbosacral instability and intervertebral disc disease.
It’s important to work with your veterinarian because an accurate diagnosis and aggressive treatment can significantly improve a dog’s mobility. After therapy is started, it’s important to monitor the response and make any needed adjustments as symptoms change.
You can also improve your dog’s quality of life with some simple changes to your home and routine. Mobility changes don’t have to be the end of a dog’s happy days!
- 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.
- Johnston, S. A. (1997). Osteoarthritis: joint anatomy, physiology, and pathobiology. Veterinary Clinics of North America: Small Animal Practice, 27(4), 699-723.
Last update on 2023-09-22 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API