Dogs can feel lethargic from time to time but, if your dog is suddenly walking really slowly and looks weak, they might be suffering from muscle wastage.
Muscle wastage (AKA muscle atrophy) in dogs can be caused by an injury, surgery or, in some cases, a chronic underlying health condition. Does your dog suddenly seem weak? We've broken down some possible causes of muscle wasting in dogs and when to speak to your vet.
Muscle wastage refers to the loss of muscle tissue in your dog. Normally affecting the back legs, the condition can cause your dog to feel weak and lethargic.
Much like humans, muscle weakness can happen following an injury or surgery – but it can also occur slowly. When the latter happens, it's not always obvious that your dog has muscle tissue problems until the condition has deteriorated.
Muscle wastage is much more common in senior dogs. This is because older dogs tend to become less active. It's also common in dogs suffering from joint issues like arthritis, as they tend to have limited movement.
All of these factors will reduce your dog's activity levels, thereby putting your dog at increased risk of muscle wastage. The good news is that, with the right treatment, muscle wastage can be reversed.
If you think your dog's muscles are wasting away or your dog's legs seem weak, it's important to intervene as soon as you can so that you can save as much healthy muscle tissue as possible. Some signs that your dog might be suffering from muscle weakness include:
It's important to keep a close eye on your dog's daily activities, too. If you notice your dog is less excited than usual for walkies or has trouble performing certain tasks (like climbing the stairs or jumping on the sofa), this could be a sign of muscle weakness.
According to our survey of 1,000 dog owners, 53% of dog owners worry about their dog's health at least once per week, so it's normal if you're concerned about muscle weakness in your dog.
Some of the most common causes of muscle weakness in dogs include the following:
As dogs get older, it's not unusual to see their muscles decline and get weaker. Older dogs can lose muscle mass and strength. This causes them to appear smaller and weaker than they once were.
Although a little muscle shrinkage is normally no cause for concern, if you notice a big change in your dog's muscle mass or strength, it's best to consult your vet.
Like humans, dogs need to keep active to preserve their muscle mass. If your dog is recovering from an injury or surgery, they might have been ordered to go on crate rest. Although essential in the long term, one of the short-term side effects of reduced activity is muscle weakness.
Some other medical conditions like joint pain and arthritis can also reduce your dog's daily activity, hence leading to muscle wastage and weakness. This is exacerbated if your dog is overweight – which, according to clinical studies cited by the PDSA, is an estimated 65% of dogs.
If you believe your dog might have arthritis or joint pain, it's important to speak to your vet. They'll be able to provide a thorough physical examination and diagnosis so that you can treat the root cause of your dog's muscle weakness.
Certain medications are known to cause muscle weakness in dogs. For example, prednisolone is a prescription-strength steroid that is widely used to treat a variety of conditions. Although a highly effective anti-inflammatory and immunosuppressant, one of the side effects is muscle wastage in dogs.
Cushing's syndrome in dogs can cause muscle weakness. Also referred to as Cushing's disease, it's a common problem that's often mistaken for old age but can seriously harm your dog's general well-being and health.
Dogs with Cushing's syndrome produce too much cortisol, an important hormone that helps regulate metabolism. Left untreated, this can have a detrimental impact on the dog's organs – but also their muscle mass. If your dog is suddenly weak, they could have Cushing's syndrome.
One of the symptoms in dogs with Cushing's syndrome is weak back legs. The excessive cortisol levels present in dogs with Cushing's causes the muscles to weaken which can make it tricky for your dog to stand up or climb stairs. As well as muscle weakness, dogs with Cushing's disease often display a variety of other symptoms. The most common ones are:
If you notice a change in your dog's mobility or vitality, it's important to speak to a vet. They'll be able to assess your dog to provide an accurate diagnosis.
Yes, they are.
James Walker, Technical Services Manager at Dechra Pharmaceuticals explains: "Cushing's disease is more common in breeds such as the Bichon Frise, Yorkshire Terrier, Miniature Schnauzer, Dachshund, Miniature Poodle and Jack Russell Terrier, among others. It's also more common in senior dogs over the age of 6, depending on their size."
Even if your dog doesn't fall into one of these typical categories, it's important to go see a vet as soon as possible. They'll be able to conduct tests to establish whether your dog has Cushing's.
If they do get a confirmed Cushing's diagnosis, don't panic. Most dogs will return to their usual self with the right treatment plan.
Your vet will be able to confirm or disprove Cushing's by initially performing a clinical examination and some routine blood and urine tests. These may need to be followed by specific hormone tests that measure cortisol levels if Cushing's is suspected.
If you've noticed sudden muscle weakness in your dog's back legs, this might indicate an underlying medical condition. Unlike the ageing process that causes gradual muscle weakness, a sudden weakness in the hind legs can signify something more serious such as a neurological issue (disease of the nervous system).
It's important to speak to your vet urgently if:
Muscle weakness in a dog's hind legs can be a sign of a serious medical condition, so it's important to see a vet as soon as possible if you're worried about your dog's health.
Your vet will be able to assess your dog and determine the root cause of the muscle weakness and/or loss. Most medical conditions that cause muscle loss are easily treated with medication, so it's always worth getting your dog checked out if you're concerned or notice a change in their behaviour.