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

old-golden-Labrador-sat-on-a-wooden-floor advice
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If you own an older dog, perhaps you have noticed that he trembles and his back legs shake and collapse. These are symptoms of hind leg weakness that is more prevalent in senior pets.

By Dawn Parrish

What is hind leg weakness?

As dogs get older, it’s natural that their whole body will age and become weaker. A weakness of the dog’s back legs is usually due to either loss of muscle, hip dysplasia or arthritis. Other contributing factors are stress and deterioration that impacts the joints, either due to obesity or age. The hips are not the only origin for back leg collapse. This can also be due to a vertebral condition, or a spinal issue. Likewise, some pets are more prone to weakness as an age-related ailment.  

A much more serious condition arises when the dog displays ongoing symptoms and is in pain. What makes this health issue worrying, is how speedily the illness can manifest itself in just a very short period of time, without any prior warning.

There are several conditions that can contribute to the collapse of the back legs.

Degenerative Myelopathy

Mainly affects older dogs, who risk losing total control of their rear legs. This disease, known as DM, causes the spinal cord to deteriorate, then consequently the signals that are carried from the brain to the dog’s legs cease. Although not a condition that produces lots of pain, any dog diagnosed with degenerative myelopathy risks losing total mobility.

At present, it’s almost impossible for a definitive diagnosis until after the dog’s death. Holistic medicine via herbal medicine is normally given to alleviate the symptoms.

Mark Troxel, DVM, DACVIM (Neurology) and Charles Evans, MPT, CCRP of IVG Hospitals report that

 "Degenerative Myelopathy has a slow onset and is NOT painful. If these early symptoms occur suddenly or if your dog is in pain, you are most likely not dealing exclusively with DM."

Injury can cause back leg 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.

Arthritis in a senior dog

As your dog ages, the knee and hip joints begin to weaken. Protective cushioning around the joints breaks down, especially in larger dogs. Arthritis can develop, producing terrible pain in the dog’s hips and joints. An X-ray will generally be given to diagnose the arthritic condition. The dog’s painful joints will be medicated with anti-inflammatories. Over time, however, this apparent collapse of the dog’s rear legs will make everyday tasks, such as climbing upstairs, extremely difficult.

Diabetes and 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 that eat a diet high in sugars and grains or overweight dogs are more at risk of rear leg collapse.  A simple blood test at the surgery will usually confirm if diabetes is the cause.

Cushing ’s disease

This illness normally shows in dogs over the age of 6. Cushing’s disease presents as an increase in thirst and appetite, a pot-bellied appearance and hair loss. Likewise, weakness of the dog’s legs may be a justification of the disease which results from too much cortisol being produced in the adrenal glands. Rear leg collapse can also occur alongside several other elements.   

  • Rear leg pain        

  • Stiff legs and joints       

  • Weakness/problem standing on rear legs       

  • Absence of coordination       

  • Unstable and abnormal stance

  • Hesitance to be active 

  • Rear leg swelling     

  • Suffer incontinence

gentle exercise can help older dogs
Swimming can help older dogs with back leg collapse

Health changes are normal but treatable

Caring for your ageing dog, and by offering treatment and medication to prevent any more deterioration and unnecessary pain is normal. There are many techniques you can use to make your dog’s golden years more bearable. Regular walks and swimming all provide necessary aerobic exercise, which is helpful when dealing with the collapse of the rear legs of an old dog.

Exercise improves blood flow to the brain, improves memory and muscle performance, all of which ward off degenerative diseases. In addition, regulation of the dog’s diet can certainly influence important factors such as the progression and development of these health problems.