7 Reasons Your German Shepherd’s Back Legs are Collapsing

If your German Shepherd is starting to show signs of being less-than-steady on their feet, then it’s definitely time to visit the vet. German Shepherds as a breed are prone to conditions of the hip and the back legs, and in this article, we’ll give you the reasons why.

We’ll also talk about symptoms to watch for condition, specific conditions that Shepherds may suffer, and we’ll also discuss treatment and recovery options. Let’s take a look at why your German Shepherd’s back legs are collapsing.  

Why Do My German Shepherd’s Back Legs Give Out?

If you compare the back legs of your German Shepherd to those of another large dog, there’s a difference that you might not have noticed before. Their back legs have much more of a bend to them. This is on purpose, actually, as Shepherds were bred to have this particular angulation to their legs, and it’s even part of how they are judged in shows.

While this gives them an extra bit of ‘spring’, it does come with caveats, and the first of these is that Shepherd’s knee is much closer to the ground. This puts a little extra on the back and a lot more than the usual strain on the back legs. As a result, many years down the line, the strain on the back legs can develop into more serious issues.

Studies have shown, in fact, that one side-effect of this is that German Shepherds are five times more likely to develop hip dysplasia than many of the other large breeds, such as Labradors and Golden Retrievers. If you have an older dog, leg weakness is likely something that has progressed over the years, but there may be other causes, such as diabetes.

Your vet can run some tests to give you a conclusive diagnosis.  

Symptoms of Back Leg Weakness in German Shepherds

As there are different causes for back leg weakness in German Shepherds, there are a number of different symptoms to consider. If you see one of the symptoms which we have listed below, a vet checkup is a good idea so that the root cause may be determined and treatment initiated as soon as possible.  

Lethargy

Lethargy is a common first symptom, as your dog knows that their back legs are weaker and simply prefers to stay sitting or lying down. Watch to see if this occurs with a reluctance to rise or a wobbly gait – however brief – to see if this energy loss may be an early sign of back leg weakness.

Poor Coordination

Poor coordination is a definite red flag that your dog may be suffering from back leg weakness. Veterinarian Tammy Hunter, DVM, advises that dogs in this condition are prone to fall over easily when gently pushed from the side. Slipping on the floor quite often is another common way that this manifests and is a definite warning sign.

Decreased Range of Motion

Another early warning sign is a decreased range of motion may be indicative of developing back leg weakness, though this will sometimes manifest as well if your dog has simply strained their back muscles while playing frisbee or other games where they must jump and twist.

Urinary and Bowel issues

In the later stages of degenerative myelopathy, leg paralysis often occurs along with a loss of control of urination and the bowels. While this is more common in Shepherds over the age of 8, it can occasionally occur in younger Shepherds as well.

Reduced Muscle mass

Reduced muscle mass is a common symptom, which may be degenerative myelopathy or Osteoarthritis. It is a slow process and sometimes manageable by means of a harness or an exercise regimen which may be proscribed by your vet.

Walking at a Lower Stance

Another symptom to watch for is when your Shepherd has taken to walking in somewhat of a ‘hunched’ stance. They may walk a little more slowly or simply creep along with their bodies closer to the ground so that they have better control over their legs and where they are going.

Leg Paralysis

Leg paralysis is common towards the end of degenerative myelopathy and may possibly occur within 6 months to 2 years following a diagnosis of this condition. During this time, exercise can often help to extend the quality of your Shepherd’s life, but the paralysis is still likely to occur in time.

German Shepherd with weak back legs

Causes of Back Leg Weakness in German Shepherds

There are a number of root-cause possibilities for back leg weakness in German Shepherds. Shepherds were bred to have a 90-degree bend in their back legs, and while this provides agility enhancement, it also makes them more vulnerable to certain conditions. The most common causes of back leg weakness have been listed below.

Genetics

Shepherds are prone to a number of medical conditions such as degenerative myelopathy, hip dysplasia, and arthritis. Due to this, many prospective owners will ask their breeder for copies of the health history of the dam and the sire, along with X-rays of the hips and elbows of the parents and the puppy to determine the likelihood of certain conditions.

Hip Dysplasia

With hip dysplasia, the ball portion of the upper thighbone is not fully covered by the hip socket. This means that the hip joint may occasionally become dislocated either partially or, in some cases, completely, and as the ball of the hip joint meets the socket, it causes pain for the dog when moving.

While this sometimes affects smaller dogs, it is much more common in larger breeds such as the German Shepherd.

Degenerative Myelopathy

Degenerative myelopathy is a neural condition that some German Shepherds are prone to, and it manifests as the dog slowly losing control of their hind legs. While there is no cure, with a DM diagnosis, a veterinarian can proscribe a series of treatments designed to extend and improve the quality of the dog’s life.

Of note, veterinarians Ernest Ward and Tammy Hunter advise that a genetic mutation known as SOD-1 has been identified to be a major risk factor in developing Degenerative Myelopathy, but research is still continuing on this condition.

Osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis is a disease that causes degeneration of a dog’s joints, and while it is difficult to detect, a proper diet used in conjunction with joint supplements and regular exercise can help to slow the development of this condition.

As it is very hard to detect, Shepherd owners are advised to have regular vet checkups in order to increase the chances of detecting and managing conditions such as this early on.

Subluxation

Subluxation is a condition where one or more of the vertebrae in the spine have become misaligned. This often results in pain, along with a reduced range of motion, a wobbly gait, and similar conditions. While this is not genetic, some dogs are going to be more likely to develop this than others simply because the bone structure is inherited from the parents.

Lumbosacral Stenosis

Lumbosacral stenosis is a disease that sometimes afflicts German Shepherds, and it affects both the spinal cord and the nerves which are present where the pelvis and the spinal column meet. This is something that a dog may be born with, or it may develop, and it manifests with symptoms such as hind leg and tail weakness, incontinence, and pain.  

Treatment is available, typically in the form of medication or in more severe cases, in corrective surgery,

Diabetes

Diabetes is another common culprit when it comes to back leg weakness in many dogs, and one of the symptoms is weakened leg joints. German Shepherds have a higher-than-average chance of developing diabetes, but if this is the reason for your dog’s weakened legs, the good news is that it is very manageable.

Once your vet has identified that it is diabetes, they can proscribe treatment that will help your dog’s legs, and with diabetes carefully managed, they may well have a long and happy life ahead.

Diagnosis of Back Leg Weakness in German Shepherds

If you have noticed symptoms such as lethargy, weakness of the back limbs, or a poor lack of coordination, then you will want to make a list of the symptoms which you are seeing in your German Shepherd and schedule a vet appointment right away. Once you arrive, your vet is going to run a series of tests, both physical and neurological, to assess the root cause of the issue.

During this phase, they are first looking for signs of diabetes, a tumor, and any physical abnormalities which might explain your dog’s current symptoms. Blood and urine will be tested next to rule out any toxins, and confirm diabetes and the possibility of Cushing’s disease. Finally, imaging technology is employed to see if methods such as ultrasound or X-rays can locate any telltale abnormalities.

If the previous tests have still not given a full and clear diagnosis of the issue, then your veterinarian may recommend additional tests such as aspiration of the joint’s fluids, a spinal tap, and hormonal testing in order to get a confirmation on the root cause of the back leg weakness. At this point, your vet should have a full diagnosis so that treatment may be proscribed.

Treatment of Back Leg Weakness in German Shepherds

There are various treatments for back leg weakness in German Shepherds, depending on the root cause of the issue. As it is related to a number of conditions that German Shepherds are prone to, we’ll try to cover a wide range of the most common treatments for the conditions which we have listed in the previous section on causes.

The most common treatments for back leg weakness in German Shepherds are listed below.

Chiropractic Care

Chiropractic care may help to improve the quality of your Shepherds life and is often used in conjunction with medications for pain, along with joint supplements and other condition-specific pharmaceuticals designed to treat the root cause of the back leg weakness.  

Insulin

In cases where the back leg weakness is caused by diabetes, then insulin may be administered to help to get diabetes in control, while medications are provided to help in pain management, and an exercise regimen is followed to return muscle mass and control to the hind legs of the dog.

 In this case, the dog has a very good chance of regaining full control of their hind legs, but your vet will be able to best advise what you should expect.   

Support Harness

Along with pain management and chiropractic care, a support harness is commonly proscribed for German Shepherds suffering from back leg weakness to give them better control of their mobility and help exercise the atrophied muscles if their specific condition is conducive to this.

In severe cases where full paralysis of the back legs occurs, then a wheelchair may be used in place of the support harness to allow the dog limited mobility when exercise and a support harness is not an option.

Cold Laser Therapy

With conditions such as subluxation, newer treatments such as cold laser therapy may be an option. In a specific case, a 7-year-old German Shepherd suffering from subluxation was able to have the condition corrected through a combination of regular chiropractic care used in conjunction with cold laser therapy.

Many veterinary clinics have started to offer this innovative treatment, but you will need to check with your vet to see if this is a viable option based on the root cause of the back leg weakness.

Pain Management Medication

In some cases, such as degenerative myelopathy, where the is not an option for a cure, treatment becomes focused on improving the quality of the dog’s life. To this effect, a veterinarian can customize a pain regimen that can help your dog remain more comfortable if further treatment is simply not an option.

Surgery

Some conditions, such as Lumbosacral Stenosis, may be treated by means of corrective surgery, but this is one specific condition where corrective surgery may be an option. Most commonly, this type of surgery is only going to be employed in the most difficult cases where medication is an insufficient means of managing the issue.

As this condition is severe, in either case, the dog will need to be confined for periods of 4 to 10 weeks for monitoring and treatment.

Recovery of Back Leg Weakness in German Shepherds

Recovery options for a German Shepherd showing signs of back leg weakness will vary, but generally, they will include pain management along with treatments such as chiropractic care, use of a support harness to help rebuild atrophied muscles, or with diabetes, it could be insulin and a custom exercise regimen designed to rebuild muscle mass.

In cases like degenerative myelopathy, a cure is not an option, and treatment will be more geared toward making your dog more comfortable as the condition worsens. Not all back leg weakness will be DM, however, and conditions such as lumbosacral stenosis are treatable with medication and surgery during an isolation period of 4 to 10 weeks.

With conditions like Osteoarthritis, joint supplements and pain medication can help your dog live a more normal life with their condition. With hip dysplasia, treatment will vary based on whether it is caused by genetics or a physical injury and will need to be customized by your veterinarian based on your dog’s specific case.

New treatments such as cold laser therapy are also available and may be proscribed.

Want To Train Your Dog With Peace Of Mind?

If you haven’t trained your dog properly, then this is the perfect time to start. Whatever bad behavior your shepherd has, whether it’s barking at night or other bad behaviors, using the right training program is the key to having an obedient and happy pup.

The training program I love and highly recommend is Brain Training For Dogs.

With Brain Training For Dogs, you’ll save yourself a ton of time and effort. Instead of banging your head against the wall trying to figure out why your dog won’t listen, you’ll follow a path that has been tried, tested, and most importantly, that’s given proven results. Not to mention the fact, that you’ll be able to fit the course around your schedule, not fit your schedule around a trainer or obedience class.

So instead of worrying about whether they’re going to be well-behaved or not, you’ll only have to worry about how much fun you’ll have with them!

And in most cases, it’s still going to be:

  • Cheaper than hiring a professional.
  • Cheaper than replacing everything they might break.
  • And definitely cheaper than a lawsuit against you, if they decide to bite someone.

Just imagine how great it will feel to finally be able to trust your dog completely and never worry whether they’ll be naughty or not. Instead, you’ll have the peace of mind that you have a well-behaved pup, and the boundaries you set for them will always be there, EVEN IF YOU’RE NOT.

And the best part is it also has a 60-day money-back guarantee! So there’s no reason not to give Brain Training For Dogs a try!

So if you’re tired of your dog’s bad behavior or how they react around other people and pooches, then give it a try! You’ll be amazed by the results!

(You can also check out a full review here to learn exactly what the course has to offer!)

FAQ

How Can I Help My German Shepherd With Weak Hind Legs?

The Handicapped Pets blog advises that a support harness can be quite useful in helping your dog to exercise more easily and that massage of the back legs may also be employed to help release the tension in your dog’s legs during the course of rehabilitative exercise.  

How Can I Prevent My German Shepherd From Having Weak Hind Legs?

Website such as the veterinary network TPLO advises that regular walks, in addition to a healthy diet and joint supplements, can help in the treatment and prevention of back leg weakness in older dogs.  Swimming is also a good exercise, as it is low-impact due to the water supporting your dog’s weight and allowing them to exercise atrophied muscles much easier than walking.

Some Closing Words

Today we’ve explored the reasons why German Shepherds are more prone than other large breeds to problems with their back legs and hips. A large part of this is genetic, as Shepherds were bred to have a more pronounced bend in their back legs, and over time, this leads to additional strain on the back and the legs.

Shepherds are prone to conditions such as degenerative myelopathy, hip dysplasia, Osteoarthritis, and more, so it is vital that you ensure that your Shepherd has a healthy diet, along with plenty of exercise and joint supplements are also a good idea.

Finally, be sure to bring your dog in for regular checkups, as conditions like Osteoarthritis can be difficult to spot without veterinary assistance – early diagnosis is always best and offers the best chances of treatment and proper management.