Causes Of Ataxia & Weak Back Legs In Dogs

Updated November 28, 2020

Does your dog show any of the following signs?

  • Weakness and shaking in the back legs
  • Legs slipping out
  • Scuffing or dragging the rear feet
  • Inability to support the weight
  • Collapsing especially in the hind legs
  • Swaying or wobbling haunches

Then you’re in the right place. Here you’ll find a lit of the possible causes.

These are the signs of a problem with the nerve supply to the hind legs. There are many diseases that do this, not just degenerative myelopathy. The end result is a sort of abnormal movement we call ataxia.

The video shows one such example. It’s also important to stress that even vets get fooled at times by non-neurological hind leg lamenesses like hip dysplasia or severe arthritis.

Therefore, it’s also worth visiting these three pages too:

Causes Of Back Leg Weakness In Dogs

These causes are listed in order of how commonly we see them in Australia. There’s a brief description next to each disease, but you’ll find more at the links (where present).

  • Intervertebral disc disease (IVDD): a sudden onset of ataxia or paralysis in adult dogs of any age and often associated with severe back pain
  • Tick paralysis*: if your dog lives near scrub or bushland, this is very high on the list
  • Lumbosacral stenosis: a slowly progressive loss of hind leg function due to pressure on the spine from narrowing in the last spinal joint.
  • Fibrocartilagenous embolism: a sudden loss of hind leg function without pain mostly in large breeds, caused by a small cartilage fragment blocking an artery.
  • Polyradiculoneuritis*: an autoimmune disease of the nerves believed to be triggered by Campylobacter exposure from raw chicken.
  • Degenerative myelopathy*: a slowly progressive loss of leg function seen especially in medium and large old dogs. Far more often suspected than actually the cause.
  • Snakebite*: the first signs of snake bite can be wobbly hind legs, but the signs then progress rapidly
  • Discospondylitis: infection with bacteria or fungi in a joint in the spine, and more common in large, young dogs.
  • Fractures and trauma: injuries to the spine are uncommon in well-cared-for dogs but can happen due to running onto a road or into a glass door.
  • Feeding calcium deficient diets: this spinal collapse was once common on home made diets but is now very rare due to balanced diets being widely used.
  • Toxins & Poisons: examples are grapes, recreational drugs (especially cannabis) and many human medications.
  • Botulism*: an extremely rare paralysis caused by a toxin from bacterial contamination of food.
  • Myasthenia gravis: an autoimmune disease that attacks the neuromuscular junction, also extremely rare.
  • Low blood sugar: rare except in diabetics receiving too much insulin.
  • Low thyroid levels: hypothyroidism is common, but this is a rare symptom.
  • Syringomyelia or Chiari like malformation: a problem with the shape of the skull only common in young Cavalier King Charles Spaniels.
  • Hemivertebra: a congenital spinal malformation commonly seen in young French Bulldogs, Pugs and English Bulldogs.
  • Cervical spondylomyelopathy or wobbler syndrome: a problem mainly of Dobermans and other young adult to older large and giant breed dogs.
  • Neospora caninum is a parasite especially of young dogs that causes toxoplasma – like signs.

Diseases marked with an asterisk (*) usually begin in the back legs but progress to involve the forelegs, and even respiratory muscles if not controlled.

As the prognosis varies greatly depending on the diagnosis and speed of treatment, it’s essential to see a vet as soon as possible.

By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. These blogs are from a series regularly posted on email and Twitter. Subscribe via email here to never miss a story!
Have something to add? Comments are welcome below and will appear within 24 hours.

Andrew

36 Replies to “Causes Of Ataxia & Weak Back Legs In Dogs”

  1. I rescued an 8 yr old Havenese a few months ago. Sadly I think he was abused. Last week he went to the vet to be fixed, they also pulled all of his teeth yesterday I noticed his back legs have been giving out. He has also woke me in the middle of the night to go out and it has appeared as if he can’t hold his urine. Could this be a temporary issue to the anesthesia ?

    1. Hi Kathy. I would only expect these to be caused by anaesthesia if it happened in the last three days. Given his unknown history, it’s worth being careful and ask your vet for an opinion.

  2. My senior has just developed this when walking and is having trouble sitting down, she is panting a lot because of it. Her appetite is still strong. I know she has has hip displacia but I believe from when I adopted her they were fused, her front legs have been bowed since I have had her but they have never been an issue. This has only just started and the local vet has given anti inflammation which don’t seem to be doing much and am we are going back in a couple of days.. She is sitting with her back left leg out straight and the struggling with movement is causing her to urinate inside. She is a senior Maltese cross and had been in my life for 3.5 of her 12-13 years. I am seriously worried about her.

  3. Hi, I have Dachshund that sudden can’t walk with his back legs. What we think, he has paralysis on his back legs.
    We took to the VET but it didn’t say much.
    He still can feel the pain or hurt on his paw if I press it. There is still a reaction.
    He keep urination, he is exactly can’t stop urinating.
    I still not sure what is going on with my dog. He is 8 years old, his weight is 11 kg, it is overweight.
    Does anyone know with this case?
    Is he still able to have a long life?

    1. Hi Angelina. I’m absolutely certain that your vet fully understand the problem and knows exactly what to do, so if it wasn’t clear, get back in touch with them immediately. It’s an emergency. When you have time, also read our article on IVDD.

  4. I have a German shepherd that is wobbly when she walks and drags her back paws and her nails scrap on the floor saw d at times her back legs cause her to fall when working. What is wrong with her ?

  5. Hi, our 15.5 y.o. female toller was in excellent shape until this morning when her hind legs started to give out and be wobbly and uncoordinated. We went to the vet with her 2-weeks ago for a severe limp in a front leg. They prescribed Gabapentin (she has some kidney deficiency) and she was fine after a few days. They did x-ray her and didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary… except the fact that she shows no signs of arthritis…pretty odd for a 15.5 y.o. medium sized dog. So all was fine. And then this morning, something seems to have happened to her spine over night…on its own (no accident). She feels warm to the touch. But her appetite is as ravenous as ever, and her spirit is good. She doesn’t seem in any pain at all. All the vets are closed today (26 of Dec) and tomorrow. I’ve already called and left a message to see a vet early on Monday… My 15.8 y.o. BC died last year, our 15.5 y.o. Border Staffy has been dragging her hind legs for over a year now and loosing control over her bladder and bowels, but it was progressive. This is sudden. And is not vestibulitis.

    1. Hi Marie-Emmanuelle. Although they might be unrelated, the only way I can link the two conditions is IVDD in the cervicothoracic spine. This could cause a root signature and lameness in a forelimb and ataxia in the hindlimbs. If true, strict rest is essential until you can see a vet.

  6. My 5 year old yorkshire suddenly lost all the movements of his hind legs. I ordered a radiograph and no bone problems. I had thrown out some expired medicines that day and I am afraid he had eaten some in the trash. It’s possible? Can drug poisoning paralysis be permanent? Thanks!

    1. Hi. I’m not aware of any drugs that can cause permanent paralysis. If no myelogram, CT or MRI was performed, sudden loss of hind limb function is still most likely to be caused by damage to the spinal-cord.

  7. My 2 year old mini goldendoodle’s back legs have suddenly become weak. The first initial night he was in pain so I took him to the vets the next morning and they gave us pain med and an antibiotic. He seemed to be getting better and hadn’t shown any more symptoms of pain but He wobbles a bit and he wants to jump onto things as always but cant anymore. It’s so sad to see him struggle. The vet is supposed to call me back today but i just can’t understand what’s going on : (

    1. Hi Gina. Due to the risk of IVDD, the most important thing is that until you can see your vet again, to keep him as still as possible. The best way to do this is confinement in a very small area without steps or furniture, or even in a crate.

  8. Hi, I was playing ball with my little chihuahua she’s only 5years, as she went too retrieve the ball she left the ball and started walking on only 3legs, her left leg was extended out she was having a hard time getting her leg too do anything for her,there is no pain anywhere around the area,No bones broken not swollen,went too bed hoping she just pulled a muscle or something But after a night of rest she got up and was still favoring that same leg,like I said no matter what pressure I put on it she doesn’t have no pain,please help,thank u

  9. Our beautiful 8 year old great pyr/golden mix was diagnosed with CP deficits at her annual vet appointment in May due to her delayed recovery response from turning over her back paw. Yesterday, with no warning, her back legs became very unstable and she could not walk nor could she balance when standing. She was upset and hiding but didn’t seem to be in tremendous pain although typically, she doesn’t show pain. This morning, she seems mostly back to normal. She is very happy but is tenuous with her movements. She’s peeing and pooping normally. Any idea of what could be happening and whether or not we should follow up with a physical exam by a vet very soon if possible? We live in the mountains and with covid and our small town vet availability, I don’t know how soon we could get her in to see someone. Our mobile vet called last night but is not working due to covid. I appreciate your page – you have more information than anyone else I could find. Thank you for your work in the world!

    1. Hi Deb. If she has neurological neurological deficits, and they seem to come and go, then I would be suspicious of IVDD Or another cause of spinal-cord compression. I think it’s essential to get a check up (and even advanced imaging if sons allow) but in the meantime keeping her from slipping, running and jumping as much as possible is very important to hopefully prevent relapse.

  10. Hi. I have a 8 week old golden. She came home from breeder fine within 5 days has developed a high fever and a bit of weakness in back legs. She often sits on one leg. Is this normal! . She’s on antibiotics but I cannot tell if the weakness is related to an infection or just being malaise from feeling. Sick. We are distraught. We have all her papers the breeder has never had this happen before either.

  11. Hi,
    I have been trying to do research on possible causes of my adolescent (9 month old) puppy hind leg wobbliness. I adopted him when he was 5 1/2 months old and he had gone through 2 homes before I got him (COVID-19 issues). The original owner fed him only chicken and rice (not dog food) until he was a little over 4 months old. I’m including that diet information in case it did something to him during formative years. DNA tests say his 25% miniature poodle, 25% lab, 25% chow chow, and 25% undefinable terrier spaniel mix. I was informed he was very much the runt of the litter and his litter mates were twice his size when young. He is 17 pounds. He is solidly built with short strong front legs and wimpier back legs. I originally thought this was a muscle development problem as before he came to me he was crated A LOT. I took him to my vet when he was about 7-8 months old and after a series of spinal x-rays and hip -rays, there seems to be no apparent reason for it. Originally my vet was concerned about the spine but he says it “looks good”. X-rays show has bad hips but not horrible. The vet also felt his muscles were properly developed. He does not feel any pain at all, he enjoys extending legs and hips, never is stiff and never seems to feel any discomfort at all. He runs but really can’t jump more than 10 inches. Sometimes he knuckles his back paws a bit but not a lot. The issue is most apparent when he defecates, he has normal stool but often times in that position he kind of just wobbles and falls over or stumbles. Recently he fell backwards on his own poop! Since having him, he has had 3 episodes of paraphimosis that I have resolved without going to the vet (not sure if that is related) as it always happens during toy play.

    He doesn’t seem to be getting better or worse. I have come to terms that it just might be the way he is but I love to solve medical mysteries so am hoping you can give me some ideas to research.

    Thanks for any suggestions. When I search most things, it does not come up as common in younger dogs.

    Kristin

    1. Hi Kristin. It’s certainly unusual, and given what you have already done, I doubt that there is a simple answer. If the problem is not worsening, it may have to remain a mystery. Otherwise, I would seek referral to a specialist.

  12. Hi, my 7 year old very active kelpie.
    3 weeks ago he was Chasing a ball in the garden and started yelping horrifically and was unable to weight bare On his hind leg for a few hours, took him to the vet that day and they treated him with anti inflammatories and suspect muscle strain. Since then I have noticed he is a bit cautious, then yesterday He was playing again and yelped and started limping on the other hind leg, after a few minutes He appeared fine and did not want to come in and rest. Later tonight I have noticed he is walking a bit stiff in his hips and when going down stairs his back leg slipped out and he nearly fell. I have been googling all weekend and am so worried as he is such an active breed and will not cope well if he can’t get around as easily.

    1. Hi Kay. I’m sure there’s a solution to the problem, and it’s probably on this page or the one on causes of lameness, but right now it’s hard to see what it is. Most vets would try anti-inflammatories first (like yours did) and now investigate the problem since it isn’t resolving by medical means alone. If you can, post back here later once the cause is found. Good luck.

  13. My 10 year old German Shepherd was running circles in the yard as fast as he could, while a dog was walking by the house. He slid in the wet grass and he landed with his back legs splayed out. He held one leg up very high and was limping. I had him rest as much as possible as we were away at our summer place, couldnt get in to see a local vet, and couldnt travel home due to Covid restrictions. After a couple days, he stopped limping, but kept sliding and splaying out on the new hardwood floors. His hind legs started giving out as he was walking . I bought rugs and runners and he has made a significant improvement, but he still sways when he walks and occasionally one of his hind legs will give out. He has no trouble climbing steps but has some difficulty going down steps. He runs normally. He was bunny hopping at first, but now runs normal again. He actually runs better than he walks. He had no issues at all before the injury. Any ideas? He has a vet appointment tomorrow, but this has been going on since the last week in August.

    1. Hi Karen. It sounds like he had a spinal injury. I would guess either IVDD or lumbosacral stenosis. It will be worth investigating to manage him better in the future.

      1. Our 6 year old German shepherd / beagle shows no issues running for long periods, jumping, walking etc. However recently she will whimper in pain when climbing into our couch or bed. Also sometimes when she is laying down, if we touch near her hips area she will make a painful yelping noise and seems to be in pain for a few moments afterwards.

        We are going to take her to a vet for her 6 month visit soon, but is this something we should be more concerned about? It’s been happening for about 3 weeks now

      2. Hi Russ. I’m sure your vet will want to do an x-ray when you mention this – if it’s quite a while till your six-month check I advise you go in soon. My best guess is it will be osteoarthritis secondary to hip dysplasia.

    1. Hi Yash. At this age I would be looking for other causes than those found on this list and would be seeing a vet as soon as possible.

  14. Our previously bouncy little mini foxie/chihuahua x has very suddenly got very weak hind legs, she can’t walk up even one step, and her legs slide out from under her when she stands on the wooden floor! She seems to be losing control over them? She is an older dog with arthritis and a heart murmur, but treated for both, and this literally happened overnight. I am hoping against hope she will be better again tomorrow which is Sunday, we live in the country so no vet until Monday… She doesn’t seem to be in pain at all, so that at least is something…

  15. How long does degenerative myelopathy usually take to set in? I took my Dogo Argentino to the vet before I left for a trip less than a month ago. I thought she was just having an allergy issue, because she was chewing her back end. The vet was looking her over, and suspected arthritis issues. We put her on an anti-inflammatory until I could get back into town, and get blood work done. I was gone 22 days, and when I got home last night, I could tell that she’s losing the use of her hind legs fast. She needs help getting down the steps to go outside, she’s having trouble standing up, she’s wobbling. I took her for a short walk and her back feet are scraping, she squatted to pee, and her legs started flattening out behind her. I left the vet a message, but I am freaking out. She’s only eight years old. This progression has all been while I was gone for only 22 days. Any advice is greatly appreciated!!!!!

  16. My 14 yr. old Maltese has several problems ( heart murmur, kidney issues) but only recently I noticed her back legs wobbling slightly. I plan to take her to the vet tomorrow. Candie is a beautiful precious dog that has a wonderful life.

    1. Hi Lynn. Wobbling in the back legs could be a separate problem at this age, especially arthritis, but it could also be weakness through reduced cardiac output. One thing to consider is the combined effect of arthritis and cardiac medications with kidney issues will require more frequent blood testing. Good luck with the vet tomorrow.

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