What I Do As a Vet When My Old Dog’s Back Legs Are Collapsing

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Maybe you’ve never thought about it, but the vet’s dogs get sick, too. I’m writing this article as a veterinarian whose own dog has a serious problem. This is what I did as a vet and a worried pet owner when my old dog’s back legs started collapsing.

My Dog’s Back Leg Symptoms

Unfortunately, rear limb weakness is not that uncommon in older dogs, especially large breeds such as German Shepherds, Labrador and Golden Retrievers and Boxers. 

My dog is a German Shepherd mix. Her symptoms first started when she was around 8 years old. She’s had multiple flare-ups over the last 7 years. Now, as an older dog who is nearly 15, she has less pain but more neurologic problems in her back legs.

I’m going to relate the actual symptoms I’ve observed in my own dog. I’ll also share what I’ve seen in the many client-owned senior dogs with similar problems. 

  • Jumping up and yelping at seemingly random times
  • Looking scared, hiding and staying alone 
  • Tail held down and not wagging
  • Walking slowly or taking very small steps
  • Panting, pacing and unable to lie down comfortably
  • Flinching when touched on rear legs
  • Having a hard time posturing to pee and poop
  • Not wanting to jump on furniture, climb stairs or go on exercise walks
  • Worse after exercise or jumping
  • Toenails and fur worn down on back feet from dragging
  • Loss of muscle mass in thighs, back bones become prominent
  • Wobbly gait, stumbling, dragging back feet
  • Back legs give out when going up the stairs
  • Legs shaking or trembling
  • Unable to get up quickly from sitting or lying down
  • Not able to stand for very long 
  • Back legs slipping out or falling over especially on hard floor surfaces

There are so many subtle symptoms you may need help identifying them. Make a list of changes you’ve noticed and discuss them with your veterinarian. The sooner you realize your dog is suffering, the better you can help them.

Painful Causes of Senior Dog Back Leg Weakness

Lumbosacral Stenosis

Lumbosacral stenosis (LSS) or cauda equina syndrome, is a condition that affects the lower part of the spine in dogs. Instability between the last lumbar vertebrae and the sacrum causes narrowing of the spinal canal. This puts pressure on the nerves, causing pain and mobility problems. 

Older, large dogs are most likely to be affected. Predisposed dog breeds include Airedale, Boxer, German Shepherd, Golden Retriever, Great Dane and Labrador Retriever.

xray of dog with lumbosacral disease

Symptoms of lumbosacral stenosis are similar to disc disease and arthritis. These dogs often have some degree of pain in their back legs and/or lower back. They may have difficulty walking or standing, weakness in the hind legs, and stiffness or lameness. Some dogs might experience urinary retention or dribbling as well as fecal incontinence.

Treatment usually involves anti-inflammatory and pain medications. Exercise restriction may be required during acute flare-ups. Surgery is not common but may be considered in some cases with early severe symptoms. 

Intervertebral Disc Disease

Intervertebral disc disease (IVDD) is a condition that affects the discs that cushion the vertebrae in a dog’s spine. These discs can become damaged or degenerate over time, and when they rupture or herniate, they can put pressure on the spinal cord and cause pain and mobility problems. 

There are two types of IVDD-type one usually affects chondrodystrophic dogs (Beagles, Bassett Hounds, Pugs, Dachshunds) and type two effects non-chondrodystrophic dogs (German Shepherds, Doberman Pinschers). Dogs with type one IVDD tend to be young adults while dogs with type two tend to be middle-aged and older.  

Symptoms of IVDD can include mild to severe pain, difficulty walking or standing, and weakness in the hind legs. These symptoms may come on gradually or suddenly and might come and go over time. In severe cases, a dog can exhibit loss of feeling and paralysis of the back legs.

Treatment depends on the severity of the symptoms. Mild to moderate cases are treated with strict exercise restriction, anti-inflammatories and pain medication. In severe cases, surgery may be necessary to remove the damaged disc and relieve pressure on the spinal cord.

Degenerative Joint Disease (Arthritis)

Degenerative joint disease, also known as osteoarthritis, is a common condition that affects the joints in dogs. It is caused by the breakdown of the cartilage that cushions the joints, leading to pain, stiffness, and difficulty moving. 

More than one-fourth of dogs are diagnosed with osteoarthritis during their lifetime and many more have it but go undiagnosed. (2) The large joints in the front and hind limbs are frequently affected. 

xray of dog with hip dysplasia
Dogs with hip dysplasia this severe often develop severe osteoarthritis.

Any dog may have degenerative joint disease, but large dogs tend to show signs of it at a younger age than smaller dogs. Breeds that are predisposed to developing osteoarthritis include the German Shepherd, Labrador and Golden Retriever, Rottweiler and Mastiff.

Veterinarians recommend treatment that includes anti-inflammatory and pain medication. Weight management is often ignored but extremely important in improving a dog’s long-term prognosis.

I’ve seen hundreds of older, large breed dogs with back end weakness due to chronic knee injury and hip dysplasia-related osteoarthritis. A dog owner may be unaware their pet is suffering until their mobility is affected significantly.

Less Painful Causes of Dog Hind Leg Weakness 

Degenerative Myelopathy

Degenerative myelopathy (DM) in dogs is caused by a heritable genetic mutation of the nervous system. It has some similarities to Lou Gehrig’s disease in humans. (1) 

DM is a progressive disease that destroys the protective myelin covering surrounding nerves in the spinal cord. Without a myelin sheath, the nerves become damaged and can no longer transmit signals properly, leading to muscle weakness, paralysis, and loss of sensation in the hind legs. 

Degenerative myelopathy is more common in older dogs, and it is most often seen in certain breeds, including German Shepherds, Boxers, Corgis, Standard Poodles, Pugs and Collies. Symptoms of DM include difficulty walking or standing, hind leg weakness and loss of sensation in the hind legs. In the later stages, fecal incontinence is common. 

In my experience, it’s hard to tell the difference between DM and disc disease or lumbosacral disease since the symptoms are very similar. Genetic testing and advanced spinal imaging (CT/MRI/myelogram) can help your vet make an accurate diagnosis.

Tragically, there are no proven effective treatments for DM and the long-term prognosis is poor. Most dogs lose the ability to walk within 6-12 months of diagnosis.

Fibrocartilagenous Embolism

Fibrocartilagenous embolism (FCE) is a condition that occurs when a small piece of cartilage or fibrous tissue breaks off and becomes lodged in the blood vessels that supply the spinal cord. Without adequate blood flow, nerve impulses can’t be conducted to the hind limbs. Sometimes called spinal stroke, FCE is relatively uncommon in dogs.

This can cause a sudden loss of function in the hind legs, resulting in weakness, paralysis, and loss of sensation. Although the condition can cause a brief period of pain right when it first happens, the pain does not usually persist.

FCE is more common in young to middle-aged large breed dogs. Some small and medium breed dogs are also predisposed to the condition. 

About half of all studied cases involve high-impact activities or trauma. Symptoms of FCE come on suddenly and include weakness or paralysis in the hind legs, difficulty walking or standing, and loss of sensation in the hind legs. 

The prognosis for recovery from FCE is fair to good. Many reports find half or more of affected dogs recover within a few weeks to months. (3) The main strategies recommended to help a dog recover are good nursing care and physical therapy. 

How I Diagnosed My Dog

It is often difficult to pinpoint the problem causing your dog’s back leg weakness. When my dog started showing signs of pain and wobbliness I had to think about all the possible causes. 

The tests I ran in order to figure out what was going on included: 

  • Radiographs of the thoracolumbar spine
  • CBC, blood chemistry panel 
  • Thyroid blood panel
  • Valley Fever/Tick Fever tests
  • Urinalysis
  • Urine culture

Fortunately, I was able to diagnose my dog with lumbosacral stenosis after doing these tests. If the tests had been inconclusive, my next step would’ve been to schedule a consultation with a veterinary neurologist. 

Treatments I Use and Recommend

Aggressively Treat Pain

Pain relief is very important to improving your dog’s mobility and quality of life. Work with your vet to assess the type and level of pain your dog is experiencing. Remember that dogs don’t always show their pain in obvious ways. The only symptoms might be decreased activity levels. 

We have many options to treat a dog’s pain safely. Some options work well for one dog but not at all for another. Keep an open mind about trying the medications and other therapies recommended by your vet. Sometimes dog owners are skeptical but then find that an unusual treatment works really well for their dog. 

Some of the more common therapies for older dogs with weak rear legs include non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, opioids, muscle relaxers, injectable and oral glucosamine and omega-3 fatty acid supplements. Novel treatment recommendations may include physical rehabilitation, acupuncture and laser therapy. 

Strict Rest

During acute flare-ups of pain and stiffness, your vet may recommend a short period of strict exercise restriction. This usually lasts for 1-2 weeks and requires brief leash walks to potty, no running, jumping, stair-climbing, or rough playing with people/dogs. 

Rest along with pain medication and anti-inflammatory drugs can often help a dog improve their mobility in a matter of days.

Treat Concurrent Disease

Senior dogs are likely to have more than one disease process contributing to their weakness. For example, a dog with a chronic “slipped disc” might also have kidney insufficiency. 

Diagnostic testing will help identify major health problems so you can treat all of them. Treating pain alone won’t be enough if the dog is weak from another disease. 

Physical Therapy

According to the American Animal Hospital Association, physical rehabilitation therapy helps restore function, mobility and quality of life in dogs. Veterinarians specializing in this field are trained to help dogs with physical challenges of all kinds. They use of targeted movement, stretching, massage and underwater treadmill exercise to get your dog moving up to their full potential. 

You can find veterinarians near you who specialize in physical therapy on the Canine Rehabilitation Institute’s website. 

Alternative Therapies

Alternative therapy options to treat pain and weakness in dogs are practically endless and  include acupuncture, chiropractic, and stem cell therapy. 

Some of these therapies have scientific evidence to support their use in dogs and others do not. Make sure you consult your veterinarian about any alternative therapy before proceeding. Some could interfere with conventional treatments. 

In my opinion, it’s always best to seek treatment administered by licensed veterinarians rather than laypeople. And in most places, that’s also the law!

My Home Care Tips for Dogs with Weak Back Legs

carpet runners from Amazon.com
Carpet runners I put down to keep my dogs from slipping on the tile floor.

Home Adaptation

There are a lot of things you can do to help a weak dog get around. An easy first step is to put down rugs to help your dog navigate slick floors. I bought carpet runners of different lengths to help my dogs get from the stairs to the dog door without falling down.

Baby gates are helpful to block off unsafe areas of your home. For example, I use gates to keep my dogs from using the stairs when I’m not there to help them.

It may help to elevate your pup’s food dishes. You can buy raised food dishes or just use something you already have on hand to raise the dish to a comfortable height for an elderly dog. Use a rug under their feet while they eat to keep them from slipping.

Keep Fur and Nails Trimmed

Make sure you keep your dog’s nails trimmed pretty short. Also trim any long fur on the bottom of their feet to improve their paw pad’s grip. 

You can ask your pet groomer or veterinarian for help if you don’t have the right tools or can’t manage the procedure by yourself at home. You’ll need to trim their fur and nails every 2 to 4 weeks.

Assistive Devices

People all over the Internet are trying to sell you braces to help your dog with hind-end weakness. While some of these devices may be helpful, be very careful when using them. Leg braces can cause extreme abrasion and strangulation injuries when applied too tightly, too loosely, or left on too long.

I’m doubtful about how helpful leg braces are for most dogs. And unless they’re made for and fitted to your dog by a trained professional, the chances of them causing injury are high. Please consult with your veterinarian before using any sort of brace!

There are a few assistive devices that are safe and useful. My favorite is a lift harness that has a large handle over the dog’s back so you can support some of the dog’s weight for them. These are great for helping weak dogs get up the stairs.

I use RuffWear Grip Trex boots to protect my dog’s back feet during walks. She scuffs them so much her toenails will bleed if she’s not wearing these boots. If you use boots, don’t leave them on all the time because they can compromise circulation to the foot.

German Shepherd using a wheelchair
Dog wheelchair
Dog in a large stroller
Large dog stroller

Dogs with severe rear limb weakness can be fitted for a dog-specific wheelchair. Most dogs learn how to use these very quickly. But make sure the cart or wheelchair is fitted well to your dog to avoid sores or uncomfortable posture while using it. A dog stroller can work great, too!

There is also something called a “drag bag” that consists of a tough fabric bag fitted over the back half of a dog’s body. It protects the hind legs from injury, allowing them to drag the back half of their body with their front legs. Drag bags are best when used indoors.

Appropriate Exercise

Just because your dog is weak doesn’t mean they can’t exercise. Regular, controlled exercise will help them maintain muscle mass, flexibility, and mobility.

Talk to your vet about how much exercise your dog can withstand. Low intensity leash walks over even ground are best. If you have access to a pool, swimming can be a good option, but you still have to limit the duration.

When my dogs were 5 years old, they could easily go on a 1-hour hike in the mountains. Now that they’re elderly, a 10-minute walk around the block is about enough for them!

Unless your vet tells you otherwise, it’s a good idea to take your dog for a walk every day. Even if they seem a bit reluctant to go at first, most dogs feel better after a short walk and you will see that they move around more easily. dogs who never go on walks and spend too much time lying down tend to have more problems.

Avoid Running and Jumping

Take care to avoid activities that could exacerbate your dog’s physical problems. Running and jumping are problematic for many dogs with back problems and severe arthritis. 

I had to figure out how to get my dogs in the car without them jumping. I’ve tried a few different methods but found that these portable dog stairs or this ramp are the best way to get them in the car. A lot of people use ramps and steps to help their pets get onto the couch or bed, too.

There are many different options you can find online. I’ll put a link to the ones that I have.

Maintain a Lean Body Condition

Last but not least, let’s discuss your dog’s weight. One of the most important and least expensive ways to help a dog with arthritis or IVDD is to get them to a lean body weight. 

Many dog owners are in denial about their pet’s body condition. And it can be difficult to tell just how much extra fat your dog is carrying so ask your vet what your dog’s ideal weight range is. 

Ask whether your dog would benefit from a prescription weight loss diet. Sure, prescription diets are more costly than standard dog food, but they will get your dog to a healthy weight faster so they don’t have to feel deprived for so long.


It is very common for old dogs to experience weakness that causes their back legs to collapse.

The most common causes of hind limb collapse in old dogs are arthritis, intervertebral disc disease, degenerative myelopathy and lumbosacral disease. Some of these conditions are painful and others are not. Some of these conditions come on suddenly and some have a more gradual onset.

There are many things you can do to strengthen your elderly dog’s back legs and maintain their quality of life. A combination of veterinary care, physical therapy and assistive home adaptation can keep your senior dog as a happy part of the family for a long time.   

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  1. 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.
  2. Bland, S. D. (2015). Canine osteoarthritis and treatments: a review. Veterinary Science Development, 5(2).
  3. Nakamoto, Y., Ozawa, T., Katakabe, K., Nishiya, K., Yasuda, N., Mashita, T., … & Nakaichi, M. (2009). Fibrocartilaginous embolism of the spinal cord diagnosed by characteristic clinical findings and magnetic resonance imaging in 26 dogs. Journal of Veterinary Medical Science, 71(2), 171-176.