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As our dogs get older, they are more prone to develop disease in general. Diseases like orthopedic conditions, neurological conditions, and even metabolic conditions can cause problems with their back legs. In this article, we’ll discuss emergency and non-emergency causes of problems with your dog’s back legs and 7 tips to help your furry friend.
It’s scary when you see your older dog’s legs give out. And this can be a common concern that many pet parents have as their older dog ages. Many pet parents see that an old dog’s legs, specifically the hind legs seem to give out on them. Causes of an older dog’s legs giving out can range from orthopedic problems, neurological problems, muscle wasting in the back legs, or even metabolic problems.
We will discuss a few common causes for this below and then a few tips to help depending on the cause. There will be times when this is an emergency and other times where it may be okay to monitor your dog and get an appointment within the next few days.
What is the cause of your old dog’s legs giving out from under them? Well, there can be a variety of causes. As our dogs get older, they are more prone to develop disease in general. Diseases like muscle and joint pain, neurologic conditions, and even metabolic conditions that can cause weakness can lead to problems with their back legs not working right.
We will cover a few causes that can be an emergency and a few causes that are important to get looked at within a few days.
IVDD can be mild or severe in a dog, but in its more severe form, it can be an emergency. IVDD impacts a lot of dogs and occurs when a disc shifts and pushes up against the fragile spinal cord. There are some breeds that are more predisposed, including Frenchies and dachshunds.
IVDD can present in a variety of ways. It is often painful, but not always. For more mild cases, often medical management can be used but more severe cases require surgery. In general, if surgery is being recommended, you do not want to wait.
A good rule of thumb is if your pet can not walk, is dragging a back leg or walking funny, or appears to be in pain, call your vet and seek emergency care right away.
For IVDD disease that is severe and causes a dog’s back legs to drag or not work right, a neurologic exam by a veterinarian needs to be done right away. Though many of the mild IVDD cases can be managed medically, more severe cases may require surgery or may result in paralysis.
If your dog’s back legs seem to be causing any pain or lingering pain, then it’s important to call the vet right away. Vocalizing, yelping, excessive panting or whimpering, and limping are signs that can indicate pain. Depending on the scenario, your vet may tell you to come in right away or make an appointment within the next 48 hours, depending on the specifics that you are seeing and how long it has been going on.
This can be due to weakness, orthopedic disease (I have seen dogs that have torn both of their cruciate ligaments in their knees!), neurologic disease, internal bleeding, tumors, or even metabolic disease that is causing weakness.
As discussed in the IVDD portion above, dragging a back leg can be an emergency, especially if it is from an acutely slipped disc. Other times, it is not an emergency and may be the start of something like a degenerative myelopathy, but either way, you will want to call your vet and get their advice. If you can catch a video of what you are seeing, that can be really helpful too.
If your dog’s legs give out and they also seem to be feeling poorly, this is a sign to call your vet. This can include signs of lethargy, decreased appetite, decreased energy, and more. Fever, metabolic disease that causes weakness, cancer, and meningitis are all things that can present oddly and with a combination of signs.
Sometimes a dog can have a tumor that is bleeding inside of them causing them to collapse from weakness. If you notice pale gums, that’s a clear sign to get them into the vet right away.
Did your pet seem to lose consciousness or awareness of what was going on for a moment when the legs gave out? Was there twitching in the face or any of the limbs? Sometimes seizures in old dogs may look like this and are worth a call to the vet.
If your older dog appears to just have slipped on some slippery floor and goes back to normal right away, you still want to call the vet and get them in for a checkup but it will likely not be emergent. Always double-check with the vet office, though, and let them know the signs you are seeing at home.
Some older dogs with arthritis may be prone to slipping. As our dogs age, they are prone to developing arthritis which is a disease of chronic pain (see some signs of chronic pain in older dogs in our free handout here).
Arthritis can cause them to use their legs less and contribute to muscle loss. This loss of muscle leads to loss of their ability to ‘control’ their legs as well which means they may give out at some point on a slippery floor for example.
However, because there can be so many different causes of a dog’s legs giving out, it is best not to assume and to contact your vet. As we discussed previously, there can also be neurologic causes especially if it seems like they can’t use their legs right (and if you notice those, call the vet right away as those can be more of an emergency).
Some dogs may just slip by accident and get right up and act like nothing’s wrong. This may be due to slippery floors, reduced muscling and strength, and the slow progression of arthritis.
The best place to figure out what is causing this change in your dog’s back leg strength is at the vet. So we recommend always starting there.
If your vet suspects that your old dog’s legs have given out because of reduced muscle and strength, then here are a few helpful tips for things you can do around your home to help your dog with their back leg use as they age.
Did your pet get right back up on their own? Does there seem to be any signs of pain? Is walking normal for them, or are they limping? Any dragging of back legs, acting painful, or inability to get up? Is their mentation, appetite, and energy level normal? Or did it seem like your pet slipped on a slippery part of your flooring that they always seem to struggle with? If you see any of those listed above, you’ll want to call your vet and figure out if it’s an emergency and when your pet should be seen.
If the vet office you speak to says it’s not an emergency, still plan on setting up an appointment to have your dog looked. A look over by the vet can help a lot of old dogs as they can help identify if chronic pain is present and if medications could be helpful for your older dog.
Discussing pain control and the causes of your old dog’s back leg issues with your vet can be a very important part of helping your dog. Some dogs can experience chronic pain in their joints, and the only real sign that you see is slipping or back legs giving out on occasion.
In our senior dog care course, senior dog-focused veterinarians Dr. Monica Tarantino and Dr. Lisa Lippman also discuss specific supplements, and they recommend more tips on mobility to help older dogs no matter where they are in their journey.
Although it can be really difficult to do, getting a video of what you are seeing can be super helpful to the vet office when you call so they can help guide you the best. Was it as simple as your dog slipping on hardwood floors and getting right up?
With older dogs that have legs that slip, you have to create slip free zones for them in the home. So many older dogs battle slippery hardwood floors, and yet there are so many simple ways you can help them by creating non-slip areas for them to access. Area rugs, or smaller rugs with a rubber backing, or even yoga mats are great to connect in high slip areas.
These should be easily accessible for them and in areas that you see them struggle in. Many older dogs become reluctant to go on hardwood floors because they slip so much it scares them! So helping your old dog by putting rugs down can make such a difference to their happiness.
Some easy-to-wash options are 2×3 rugs with non-slip backing. What we do in our home is use these and line them up along slippery areas. They are easy to wash and we lay them out to dry. Washable rugs like those from Ruggable are also great options for pets.
If your vet has diagnosed your pet with arthritis and you notice they have difficulty rising, consider a lifting harness. There are many great brands. Here is one that we used with my geriatric lab mix Becca towards the end of her life that worked well and was comfortable for her.
You can also consider assisting them using a towel or lifting harness to get them moving a bit before leaving them standing alone. A simple towel can be rolled up and placed around the abdomen, using the ends to pull them up and support them as they get moving.
Some harnesses are nice because they wear them around the house, and many have handles you can grab and pull up from to assist them.
If your dog’s back legs give out sometimes, there are many mobility aids that can help. Toe grips can be helpful and even grippy socks such as these here which my patient Charlie the senior hound dog did really well with may help an older dog who has reduced muscling.
For most dogs with reduced muscling or strength, physical therapy and activity can be so helpful. Even in dogs with arthritis! Motion within reason for a dog’s health level is helpful and physical therapy can also offer different ways to help your pet maintain muscle as they get older! There are many great doggy physical therapy locations and rehabbers that you can find through the Canine Rehabilitation Institute website here.
There can be a lot of reasons for why an old dog’s back legs may give out. First, identify if it is an emergency by calling the vet. Then, lean into some of the tips that can help an old dog with back legs that give out.
These simple tips we discuss above can make a world of difference in your pets’ confidence and overall happiness. Doing these things can help you combat the most common concerns of senior pet parents.
Want to learn more ways to help your senior dog?
Senior dogs have UNIQUE needs relative to their younger counterparts. Yet we don’t talk about it enough!
Welcome! We are so glad you are here! At SDR, we are firm believers that senior pets are the most inspiring animals in the world. And our mission is to help promote the needs of senior dogs and help pet parents create a life of health and happiness for their oldest canine friend.