Causes Of Ataxia & Weak Back Legs In Dogs

Updated June 6, 2021

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.

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

Note: Comments have now closed but you should find answers to most questions by scrolling through previous replies.

Andrew

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

  1. Hello
    I have a ten years old mix of a terrier and maybe poodles
    For the past few months He’s been refusing to go up and down the stairs and his legs his back legs are giving out. He would be standing on tile to eat and slowly the legs start to come out the sides and he ends up all splayed out on the floor. Any suggestions?

    1. Hi Kate. Until proven otherwise, the most likely explanation is osteoarthritis. It should respond well to treatment if so.

  2. Hi my 7 year old Chihuahua has had a high temp with the vet prescribed antibiotics yesterday. She’s still shaking on her back legs when I stand her up. I concerned that she’s not been out for wee yet.

    1. Sorry Sean, there’s not enough information here to comment further. If you’re worried, check again with your local vet who knows more about the case.

  3. My 12 year old Aussiedoodle had sudden onset paraplegic yesterday, while admitted in Vet Clinic.
    He has been loosing hair, muscle mass (same weight), and dysrexic, starting just over a month, refusing his usual dry food and some treats, seemed to chew oddly . Having a history of dental issues, he had a dental cleaning and extractions as needed.
    After 3 weeks home recovery, he became more dysrexic, treated with Entyce, but that only increased thirst, not hunger or food acceptance.
    Eventually he refused all food 4 days ago, brought to Vet who drew labs and inserted nasal feeding tube. We delivered several liquid feedings, but tube did not stay in, then syringed food in mouth.
    Labs revealed pancreatitis, elevated liver enzymes, elevated BUN & creatinine but ratio WNL. CBC only had elevated H/H (likely hemo-concentrated); WBC slightly up.
    Admitted 2 days ago to the vet clinic hospital for IV therapeutics, including anti-nausea meds and antibiotics.
    Was walked outside several times yesterday, then hours later unable to stand on rear legs, or move them at all. Did not ask if responsive to pain.
    Decompensated through the day, labored breathing, seizure.
    Sadly, his immediate family was with him today as he went to the meadows just before “The Rainbow Bridge”.
    Explanation for sudden onset paraplegic likely a spinal cord stroke, possibly a blood clot.
    For Big Picture, Vet suggested a malignant tumor or Hyper-aggressive Pancreatitis as primary diagnosis, I am a physician, and agree.
    Brick was the best dog companion I ever had, taught me how to play, followed me to every room in house, watched TV and reacted to every 4-legged animal, especially running dogs, enjoyed local & long car rides, including the last Solar Eclipse, 9 hr drive each way from home.

  4. Hello all,
    I have a 6 month old pug. Keep in mind as he has been growing he has become very tall like if that makes sense. So tall legs but looks very skinny like he doesn’t put on weight. But, the last 2 weeks or so (maybe longer) he has been having these episodes where he starts walking but then his back legs start shaking slightly then eventually either buckles or he ends up laying down wherever he is. It takes a few mins before he can try again and can walk. But this seems to be happening more frequently (like when he eats or attempts to go to the bathroom he struggles as his back legs give out and he ends up having to lay down again). He is coherent the whole time and he doesn’t seem to be in pain. I was able to set something up at a vet but it isn’t for another week. Hoping someone can help to see if I need to get him to someone sooner than that. Thank you in advance for any advice on this.

    1. Hi Connor. That sounds like a muscular weakness, and it will definitely require a vet to work out. As rare as it is, the way he fatigues after exercise sounds most like myasthenia gravis. However, odds are it’s something much more common so please post back here once you have an answer.

  5. I have an 11 year old 5.5 pound yorkie. a few moths ago I noticed intermittent front paws knuckling. Mostly when she was laying down. Sometimes when she walked, but would straighten them out . Last week she had weakness in her right hind leg. I took her to the vet and they did an xray. Showed narrowing between C vertebrae. She took prednisone and some SX got better. Her back leg is back to normal. Her front paws still bend sometimes. She eats fine, tries to run after squirrels and does not seem to be in any distress. Vet said prob herniated disc. Can dogs be on permanent prednisone? I know that is bad for humans. Is there other non invasive treatments I can do or NSAID?

  6. My 6 month old American Bully has problem with hind legs. Breeder said he got trampled by liter mates but I think it’s more than that. Mostly right hind leg gives out and point out when walking. It gives out and he sometimes drags it. Sometimes looks like he is walking sideways with back end going to side. He has always been fed instinct for puppy that has raw food in it. My vet thought hip dysplasia but I am a RN and I don’t think that’s it either. It’s very sad to watch him walk at times. Trying to get appt with orthopedic to see him but long wait list??? Please help

    1. Sorry Sherri, it’s hard to say. Please post back here for others once you find out the cause.

  7. Hi my dog retriever and terrier mix started having problems with 1 back leg but now has problems with both . Hard time walking steps and yesterday had suddenly hight fever . Got fever treated by vet with a shot but did not get answers to whats going on any ideas she is 7 and never bern so sleepy and calm she use to jump al the time but can’t i an really worried

    1. Hi Greet. It’s possible the two conditions are not related (a lot depends on how long your dog has had back leg problems). If they are, it will take further investigation to work out why but one explanation could be bacterial or fungal discospondylitis.

  8. Hi, my 10 year old rescue mix (strongly suspect staffordshire terrier and basenji) has been slow on her hind legs to get up for a couple years. The doc thought it was minor arthritis but didn’t prescribe anything because she didn’t exhibit pain response. Two days ago, she suddenly started limping occasionally and every few stairs she would drag her right paw up over the stair. Then yesterday she suddenly could not hold her hind end up reliably, had uncoordinated movements of her back legs, and twice her hind legs gave out and her hind end collapsed to the ground.
    We took her to the ER and they said it is neurological, but had no further information to offer.
    She did not exhibit pain response while in the ER but snapped at the tech when she was being loaded back into our car. She’s never been known to snap before – ever – so they took that as a sign of pain.
    We don’t know if we should be considering end of life process or not.

    1. Hi Berta. The ER are probably right, but I have seen several occasions where arthritis has progressed to the point where it looks neurological simply due to the degree of pain. Therefore, before considering end of life decisions it may be worth trialling high doses of pain meds. However, you wouldn’t want to persist too long if there wasn’t a vast improvement.

  9. My 6 year old shihtzu starting having back pain and walking with tail down about a month ago. Got pain meds and anti inflammatory meds. It cleared up in 4 days. She was back to running, jumping and walking 2 miles a day with me. Yesterday she jumped on couch and now will hardly walk or do anything. Back end is wobbly and went to vet got same thing. Should we have made her rest for a longer period of time.? She’s our baby!

    1. Hi Alane. You did nothing wrong last time but she could be in great danger from IVDD (learn more at the link). Keep her as still as you can and make sure your vet knows that her back legs are now wobbly.

  10. My 1 year dog got poisoned by eating pieces of rail road tie and now has lose the use of her hind legs. Can she recover from this or is it best to put her down….

    1. Hi Rudy. I am unfamiliar with creosote causing this type of poisoning. Furthermore, the decision to euthanise will really come down to factors that only your local vets can guide you on. I’m sorry I can’t be more help.

  11. My poodle/shitzu/silky terrier is nearly 17yo and her back legs are starting to splay out. She still gets excited to see me when I get home and runs up to me, but I can see she is walking a little differently. Her heart is fine.
    I’m worried she will hurt herself whilst I’m not home.

    1. Hi Donna. It helps a lot to cover slippery floors with carpet runners, as well as attending to the cause.

  12. I have a 7 yo Maltese who has suddenly has loss of control, weakness in his back legs and walks wobbly. It started mostly in the left back leg slipping. Yesterday he had a episode where his back legs went board stiff for 5 min. He couldn’t move them, he seemed coherent but was lacking incessantly. Now the weakness seems to affect both back legs, mostly left, and left front leg. Took him to emergency vet and they can’t find anything in general assessment.
    His only medical issue was a dental 6 weeks ago to remove all teeth. Asked about toxins but I don’t believe that’s the issue. I actually don’t know what to look for. Any thought would be greatly appreciated.

    1. Hi Cathy. The disease that comes to mind as something we see in this age and breed with these signs is Polyradiculoneuritis, which is especially common in dogs that eat raw chicken. Otherwise, you’re that’s cool have a better idea as they are able to get a lot more information than I can. Good luck.

    2. Hi Cathy. The disease that comes to mind as something we see in this age and breed with these signs is Polyradiculoneuritis, which is especially common in dogs that eat raw chicken. Otherwise, your vet will have a better idea as they are able to get a lot more information than I can. Good luck.

  13. Our 1.5 year old Goldendoodle will bolt to the door when he hears the door open. We have our daughters two doodles visiting and tonight immediately after bolting in a mad dash to the door he seemed to lose temporary control of his hind legs. He was in a panic but after a few minutes he was fine and is acting normal again. What could have caused this

    1. Hi Betty. I have seen dogs give themselves spinal trauma from sudden movements on slippery floors, but it’s unusual. Certainly be very careful about this sort of activity in the future.

  14. Hi:
    My dog Ralph, 14.9 years, 34 lb terrier mix shows all the signs of DM….but only in his back left leg. Only one leg. Started limping 4 months ago, and got to the point where he doesn’t use that leg at all now.
    Any thoughts or advice would be greatly appreciated.
    John
    Falls Church, VA USA

  15. My 10 year old miniature schnauzer started having a bit of trembling in her right back leg a couple of months ago when standing still in certain angles.
    Then I started notice how she failed jumping up on the sofa etc. Seemed to be mostly due to not enough power in her right back leg.
    Today I thought she walked a bit funny with her back pushed up a bit and swinging her back end slit, plus it almost looked like her right back leg was at a different angle, as if she was riding a horse?
    Timeline a couple of months or so. Any idea what we’re looking at?
    She doesn’t seem to be in pain, just startled when she can’t jump as expected.
    Thanks!

    1. Hi Pim. Perhaps a general comment about dogs like these is that they never seem in pain, even when they are. It’s very hard to tell, even for vets. The answer may end up being something as simple as arthritis and may respond well to anti-inflammatories but you’ll need a vet to confirm it.

  16. I took my small dig to a vet because I think he hurt himself when he tried to jump in my bed dr took X-rays an said nothing broke but his back legs he can’t stand up on them very concerned he gave him a steroid shot an some pillls to take every 24 hours please help

    1. Hi Debra. In addition to the medications, I would make sure that he is kept as still as possible, preferably in a crate like in the article. Contact your vets straight away if he isn’t getting better but you have every reason to trust their judgement.

  17. Hi Andrew. I have a 8 week old Great Dane. She gets very shakey which I think stems from the back legs and ends up laying down and the shakes will stop. This happens usually when she’s tired. She plays great, pees/poos, eats/sleeps great too. Just had these periods of shakes and sometimes she’ll lay down and can’t get up and will crawl a little. Then a few mins later she’s fine again. Thank you in advanced for any advice or suggestions.

    1. Hi Rebecca. There is no specific disease I’m aware of that could cause this. Be careful that she is on a balanced diet. Great Danes are known for wobbler syndrome but it is not normally seen at this age. There are of course many possible congenital nerve and muscle defects. Have you seen your vet yet? It sounds very concerning.

  18. 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.

  19. 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.

  20. 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 ?

  21. 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.

  22. 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.

  23. 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.

  24. 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

  25. 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 funds allow) but in the meantime keeping her from slipping, running and jumping as much as possible is very important to hopefully prevent relapse.

  26. 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.

  27. 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!!!!!

  28. 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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