One day, you notice your dog struggling to stand or support herself, as her hind limbs tremble with the effort. That could be a natural progression due to extreme old age. Or it could be a condition known as pelvic limb weakness – also called hind limb weakness – that needs immediate attention if your dog’s spinal cord has been compromised.
Vets commonly see pelvic limb weakness in dogs, where it’s often coupled with pain and can be quite debilitating. Before they act, they must determine whether the weakness has an orthopedic or a neurological source.
Orthopedic diseases involve the long leg bones, joints, ligaments and tendons. Pain or mechanical dysfunction prevents your pet from moving appropriately, especially in the hips, the stifles (knees), ankles or toes.
Orthopedic examiners manipulate all the joints to assess pain and stability, then palpate the long bones to check their integrity and find any unexpected masses. Orthopedists rely heavily on radiographs and CT scans to arrive at definitive diagnoses.
These diseases can affect pelvic limbs and cause paresis, a medical term for weakness that’s either spastic or flaccid. Spastic paresis cuts off communication between the pelvic limbs and the brain/spinal cord. Dogs with spastic weakness have a drunken-looking, uncoordinated or stiff gait known as ataxia. They often cross their feet and knuckle over their feet, scuffing their toes. Dogs with a flaccid paresis have problems in the nerves of their back legs — think of sciatica – and the muscles and junctions between them.
A neurological exam includes gait analysis, limb placement tests, reflex testing and manipulations to assess spinal pain. Neurologists use MRI scans as the main way to diagnose conditions of the spine and nerves, because they are unable to see these structureswith other images.
Responding Quickly to Pelvic Limb Weakness
When symptoms arise suddenly and severely, speed counts. The spinal cord is a soft, sensitive structure in a confined space and has high blood flow demand. Diseases that damage the spinal cord quickly, such as herniated discs or spinal trauma, require rapid imaging and intervention for the best chance of a good recovery. (Read more about intravertebral disc disease here.) CARE’s 24-hour emergency staff can identify these sensitive cases, and a neurosurgeon stays on call at all times.
Who’s Likely to Get Pelvic Limb Disease?
The dogs likeliest to get the kind of disc disease that pushes on the spine are middle-aged dachshunds, beagles and French bulldogs. Weakness from other causes can also be breed-specific: For instance, older German shepherds, boxers, corgis, Burmese mountain dogs and Rhodesian ridgebacks get a neurodegenerative disease called degenerative myelopathy, the equivalent of human ALS.
Spinal disorders are generally caused by disc disease, external trauma, strokes, inflammation, tumors or neurodegenerative disease; any breed might get those.
Treating the Problem
Medical management can be an important treatment, though it’s mostly dependent on the condition and severity of the symptoms. For a dog with a herniated disc who can still walk, your vet may treat the condition with rest and anti-inflammatory medication. If symptoms are more severe – for example, if a pet can’t stand at all – surgery will be necessary.
On rare occasions, conditions such as degenerative myelopathy have no surgical remedies. Luckily, almost all spinal conditions benefit from professional rehabilitation with an underwater treadmill.
Think of CARE as the animal equivalent of a medical center for humans. It supplies all forms of treatment for pets via emergency care 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. It also offers board-certified specialty care after a referral from your primary veterinarian. Take a visual tour of the practice at carecharlotte.com/tour.