This article was updated on September 16th, 2023
It is not unusual for an owner to bring in a dog who is weak or wobbly on their back legs to my clinic and, understandably, they will be very concerned. Generally, we’ll be talking about an older dog and perhaps one who has been dealing with ongoing stiffness and lameness. However, any dog can develop sudden hindlimb weakness.
It is not always obvious why a dog has become weak on their hind end, and I will usually use a process of elimination when trying to determine what could be going on. Two very important parts of my examination will be the orthopedic and the neurological exam.
Top signs of hind leg weakness in dogs
Signs will vary depending on the size of the dog, the location of the issue and whether or not they are in pain.
We may see:
- An inability or difficult standing. This would be more common in larger dogs and those with a more severe underlying issue.
- Falling to the side or collapsing when trying to walk
- Muscle wastage over the hind limbs, which would be indicative of a chronic issue that may recently have worsened.
- Paw dragging. This can indicate an issue with the nerve conduction.
- Signs of pain such as trembling, whining or aggression when examined.
- A loss of proprioception. This means that if we curl the dog’s paw over, they do not realize and do not try to correct their paw position.
How worried should I be about my dog losing balance in hind legs? Is it an emergency?
A sudden loss of balance is always a true emergency, yes. As it can be a sign of a serious issue such as a recent toxicity, trauma or a slipped disc in the back, your dog needs to be seen right away.
How do I know if my dog is in pain?
It is not always easy to know if your dog is in pain and signs can be very subtle. We should not be reassured if a dog lets us touch them or move their limbs without complaining; some dogs are incredibly stoic and a loss of pain sensation would not be a good thing. We should not be expecting our dog to yelp or scream; many simply won’t do this, no matter how unwell they are.
Some of the more common signs of pain include panting, shaking, muscle tremors, refusal to move, a reduced appetite, whining and wanting to spend time alone.
Top reasons for hind leg weakness in dogs
The potential reasons for hind limb weakness are vast and varied, so I’ve selected a few of the more common ones that I see in my practice:
A slipped disc (ivdd)
This is when the spinal cord is compressed by a herniated disc. Symptoms tend to come on quickly and may affect just one leg or all of them, depending on where the spine is being compressed. We will notice the dog has pain in their back, does not want to move and may not be able to put their paws in the right position.
Those with long backs like Shih Tzus and dachshunds are most at risk. Owners must seek immediate vet care to alleviate pain and start therapy as soon as possible. The prognosis depends on how badly the spinal cord has been affected. While some dogs recover with rest and medication, others may need spinal surgery.
A bad muscle strain in the back
If your dog has injured themselves, this can lead to a reluctance to move and weakness. This could happen, for example, after a tumble from furniture or a wrestle with another dog. Your pooch may tense when we touch their back and might be slow and stiff when walking.
From home we should strictly rest them and use a thick, padded bed for them to sleep on. A vet visit is required to confirm the diagnosis and as most dogs benefit from some pain relief and anti inflammatory medicine. For a large proportion, the prognosis is excellent and they’re back to normal within a few days.
Arthritis is a common degenerative disease that affects up to 8 in 10 senior dogs. Signs tend to worsen slowly over months and years but dogs can experience flare ups after an injury or when the weather gets colder. We may notice the dog is stiff when rising and has muscle wasting over their hind end.
From home, we can be managing arthritis with weight loss plans (when needed) and exercise plans as well as ongoing medication, joint supplements and environmental modifications like ramps and anti-slip mats. During an acute flare up, a vet visit is needed and your dog may be put on some stronger medicine to help them cope.
Ruptured knee ligaments
While most dogs will just rupture one knee ligament at a time, when both rupture, a dog will become suddenly very lame on their back end. They are usually in a lot of pain and their knees may be swollen and warm. Treatment may consist of surgical repair as well as medicine and lots of rest and TLC.
Degenerative Myelopathy (DM)
This is a disease I usually see in older German Shepherds. Other affected breeds can include the Boxer, Bernese Mountain Dog and Rhodesian Ridgeback (1). As well as trouble standing up they may seem disorientated on their back legs and can go on to develop incontinence. We might notice their hind laws are scuffed and their nails are broken from being dragged.
Disclaimer: This content is not a substitute for veterinary care. Always consult with your vet for health decisions. Learn more.
Owners can help from home by keeping their dogs slim and using things like rugs, ramps booties, harnesses and wheelchairs as needed. Physical therapy can also be very useful.
Signs that you need to call the veterinarian
If your pet becomes suddenly weak on their hind limbs, is distressed or in pain then they need to see a vet urgently. This is the sort of thing that merits an out of hours visit, even if it is 2 a.m. on a Sunday.
Waiting is not advised, as your dog’s condition can worsen and we want to ensure we have any pain under control as quickly as we can.
Could my dog be having a stroke?
Strokes are perhaps over-diagnosed by owners, though they can certainly happen. As well as dragging their hind limbs, dogs can exhibit signs including a head tilt, flickering eyes or sudden blindness.
Some of these signs overlap with other medical conditions such as middle ear infections and idiopathic vestibular disease, so it is important that it is the vet who makes the diagnosis.
How do I know if my dog’s balance issues are just from getting old?
Simple getting old should not cause any trouble with balance or mobility. There will always be a reason why this is happening. Of course, certain issues like arthritis happen more commonly in older dogs, but they still require management and treatment.
5 steps you can take at home to help your senior dog’s balance and limb strength
- First and foremost, keep your dog in good nick all year round. This means maintaining them at their optimal weight, feeding a premium diet, providing plenty of exercise and bringing them along to their regular vet checks.
- Avoid more risky scenarios like letting your dog play off lead with a very boisterous dog or running about on steep mountains or steps.
- Consider joint supplements if your dog is a breed who is known for developing joint issues down the line, or if they’ve had prior injuries.
- Be consistent with exercise. This means regular exercise each day. We do not want to go easy on week days while we are at work and then bring our dogs for three hour hikes on the weekend. This is asking for them to injure themselves!
- It may sound like a small thing, but make sure you’re trimming your dog’s claws regularly. Overly long claws can have a very negative impact on their mobility.
Your visit at the vet
Questions your vet will ask you
When you present your dog at the clinic, your vet will want to know how long their signs have been going on for and if they’ve ever had any similar issues in the past. They’ll want to know about any recent injuries, tick bites or toxin exposures too.
Diagnosis & cost of diagnosis
Diagnosing the issue here can become costly, especially when we need to turn to imaging modalities like CT scans and MRIs, which can set owners back thousands of dollars. For more minor issues (like muscle strains), the diagnostic cost will only be as much as the consult (about $50).
WATCH: 3 Important Tips To Care For an Old Dog [VET VIDEO]
Vet treatments & costs
Treatment cost varies and your vet will talk you through what would be expected. For lifelong issues like arthritis, the ongoing medication, blood tests and check ups can end up costing several thousand dollars if the dog lives on for several years.
Bilateral cruciate repair can cost upwards of $10,000, particularly in larger breeds.
The surgery to repair a slipped disc is also expensive, with specialists charging anything from $5,000-$15,000.
The prognosis depends on what is going on and how quickly treatment is started. For simple strains, dogs usually bounce back to normal within a few days.
The success rate for hemilaminectomy IVDD surgery depends on the grade and severity, with those with a Modifed Frankel Score of 5-2 recovering in more than 96% of cases, but those with a score of 1 or 0 only recovering in 64% to 85% of cases (2).
Sadly, dogs diagnosed with DM cannot be cured, but we aim to keep them happy and comfortable for as long as we can.
- Short-term clinical outcomes of 220 dogs with thoraco-lumbar disc disease treated by mini-hemilaminectomy Ross C. Elliott,1,2 Chantel Moon,2 Gareth Zeiler,1 and Remo Lobetti3