old golden Labrador sat on a wooden floor

Hind leg weakness and collapse is usually a slowly progressive condition.

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Why are the back legs on an old dog prone to collapse?

By Dr Jo de Klerk, BVetMed (Hons) MScTAH MRCVS Veterinarian

Updated on the

If you own an older dog, have you noticed that they tremble and their back legs shake and collapse? These are symptoms of hind leg weakness, which is more prevalent in senior pets.

There are many different reasons for hing leg weakness, from arthritis to spinal conditions, and it's more likely to occur in older dogs. The sooner you look into why your dog has weakness or is collapsing, the better the chances of recovery, so a visit to a vet to find out what's causing it is imperative.

What causes hind leg weakness in dogs?

As dogs get older, it’s natural that their whole body will age and become weaker. Hind leg weakness, leading to collapse, can be caused by a number of factors. These include arthritis, hip dysplasia, degenerative conditions, muscular weakness and spinal conditions.

Spinal conditions, such as spondylosis, are common reasons for hind leg weakness, because the nerves that tell the legs to work are damaged. As a result, your dog might drag their toes and not pick up their feet properly, leading to muscle loss from lack of appropriate use of the legs, which in itself is a vicious cycle.

Hind leg weakness and collapse is usually a slowly progressive condition, where they gradually get worse over the course of many months. However, some spinal conditions, such as a slipped disc, can suddenly happen and cause a considerable amount of pain. Therefore, collapse should always be considered potentially serious.

What is arthritis in a senior dog like?

Arthritis is a common cause of hind leg weakness. Approximately one in five dogs over the age of eight has arthritis. The hips and knee joints are the most frequently affected. Arthritis can develop when a normal joint has abnormal forces on it, for example from overuse or obesity, or an abnormal joint has normal forces on it, for example an old injury or joint dysplasia.

When arthritis develops, the joint fluid, joint cartilage and underlying bone degenerates, leading to an uncomfortable joint that does not glide properly. Since the joints are uncomfortable, the leg is not exercised normally and the muscles weaken. This can cause the legs to slip out and collapse. Arthritis is painful, which can be evident due to symptoms such as panting, walking slower, reluctance to exercise and lying down more.

What is degenerative myelopathy in dogs?

Degenerative myelopathy is a condition affecting the spinal cord that results in a slow, non-painful progression of hind leg weakness and paralysis. Degenerative myelopathy tends to affect dogs over the age of eight years old. The exact cause is unknown although it is thought to be a genetic mutation. Symptoms include wobbling, stumbling, weakness (such as shaking) and collapse. These are the same symptoms as any other spinal condition, which makes it hard to diagnose.

Unfortunately, there is no effective treatment, but providing pain relief and addressing concurrent conditions, such as obesity or arthritis, will help improve the severity of the disease.

Can back leg injuries cause a dog to collapse?

Rear leg weakness can also result from an injury to the back or the spinal cord. This can be the result of a stroke or disc rupture or even a trauma impact. The back legs on your dog may become unstable and weak, if there is any damage, inflammation or bruising to the spinal cord or the back. This is because the nerves linking the spinal cord and the legs do not receive signals telling them what to do and, as a result, they lose control of the back legs.

Can diabetes in a dog lead to hind leg weakness?

A canine with diabetes may also present back leg collapse symptoms. It is more common in male dogs and more prominent in certain breeds, such as poodles, schnauzers, German shepherds and golden retrievers. Dogs who are overweight are more at risk of developing diabetes.

If left untreated for a long time, a condition called diabetic neuropathy can develop, which manifests as hind leg weakness. Luckily, diabetes can easily be diagnosed due to a simple blood test to measure the blood glucose level.

Can Cushing’s disease in a dog cause hind leg weakness?

This illness normally shows in dogs over the age of six. Cushing’s disease presents as an increase in thirst and frequency of urination, a pot-bellied appearance and hair loss. Likewise, muscle weakness of the dog’s legs may be a symptom of the disease that results from too much cortisol being produced in the adrenal glands. This might cause collapse, but also other symptoms associated with muscle weakness, such as unwillingness to exercise, trembling and more time lying down.

Cushing’s disease is not always simple to diagnose, as many of the symptoms are similar to other conditions. However, blood tests can lead to a diagnosis. Cushing’s disease cannot be cured and requires lifelong medication.

Are senior dog health changes treatable or manageable?

Caring for your ageing dog by offering treatment and medication to prevent any more deterioration and unnecessary pain will help manage the underlying condition. There are many techniques you can use to make your dog’s golden years more bearable. Regular, gentle walks and swimming all provide necessary aerobic exercise, which is helpful when needing to strengthen weak legs in older dogs.

Exercise improves blood flow to the brain, improves memory and muscle performance, all of which are great for improving your dog’s health. In addition, ensuring your dog has a high-quality diet with plenty of omega oils will improve joint health, mental health and naturally decrease any inflammatory processes.

When should I see a vet?

If your dog has collapsed or is showing signs of muscular weakness, such as the hind legs slipping, dragging, scuffing toes, shaking or wobbling, you should take your dog to the vet for an examination. Picking up on the cause early will help alleviate pain and improve the chances of recovery for your dog.

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