Causes Of Ataxia & Weak Back Legs In Dogs

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: 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 of lodging.


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

  1. 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!!!!!

  2. 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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