A dog shuffling the back feet isn't unusual. Hind leg problems in dogs are quite common, and in some cases, the entire pathology is located within the shuffling back legs.
In others, the real problem occurs elsewhere in the body, but manifests with abnormalities in the rear legs.
To get down to the bottom of things, the vet will perform a thorough and complete physical examination.
Then, when the primary clinical sign is back leg shuffling, the vet will perform a more detailed neurological and orthopedic exam.
In order to understand this shuffling behavior better, it therefore helps to gain a deeper understand on what proprioception is and how certain conditions may impact it causing dogs to shuffle and drag their back feet.
This article will explain the two most critical factors vets evaluate when presented with “back dogs” – proprioception and nerve function. Then, we will review the most common causes of back leg shuffling in dogs.
Understanding Proprioception in Dogs
Proprioception refers to the everyday use and placement of the paws. The proprioceptive system makes the dog capable of understanding the positioning of its body in the space without having to look.
The condition characterized by abnormal paw use or placement (unawareness of the body positioning in the space) is medically termed as proprioceptive deficit.
Testing for the proprioceptive deficit is an integral part of the neurological and orthopedic exam. The test is simple to perform and interpret, and it gives valuable info for the dog’s condition.
To test the dog’s proprioception, the vet will let the dog stay on all four legs and then take one paw and flip it over (with the knuckles down). The test comprises of watching the dog flip its foot back into normal posture.
A healthy dog with normal proprioception will flip its paw back immediately. In fact, some dogs may even refuse to flip it over.
On the other hand, a dog with a proprioceptive deficit will need a few seconds before realizing its paw is wrongly positioned and flipping it back.
This is called delayed proprioception. Finally, dogs with severe issues may lack conscious proprioception, meaning they may not reposition their flipped paws at all.
Testing Nerve Function in a Dog's Hind Legs
To test the nerve function in the hind legs vets perform a complete neurological examination. Some parts of the exam may seem unnecessary, but vets must follow strict protocols when searching for the right diagnosis.
The full neurologic exam consists of the following tests:
- Mentation (the dog's mental ability)
- Posture and gait
- Cranial nerves
- Postural reactions
- Spinal reflexes
- Pain on spinal palpation
- Pain perception
Help, My Dog is Shuffling His Back Feet!
There are many conditions that manifest with back leg shuffling in dogs. In some cases the shuffling is limited to the hind legs, and in others, it starts with the hind and the progresses on the front legs.
Here is a short review of each condition.
Overgrown or Ingrown Toenails
This is the simplest and most benign issue on this list. A dog with overgrown nails may shuffle with its feet. If this is the case, you will probably hear an unusual sound when your dog’s nails hit the floor.
Dogs with dewclaws are prone to ingrown nails. The dewclaw nails do not waste which quickly leads to excessive growth and inflammation when the nail tip starts piercing the surrounding tissue.
Arthritis is a painful joint inflammation that manifests with limping and exercise intolerance. Based on the affected joints, some dogs may manifest symptoms limited to the hind legs.
Arthritis is a gradually progressing and irreversible condition that requires life-long pain management. Some breeds are more likely to develop arthritis than others. The condition is also one of the most common age-related health issues in dogs.
Intervertebral Disc Disease (IVDD)
The spinal vertebral bones are separated with pads or discs. These pads serve as joints and cushions, enabling proper movement and preventing bone friction.
Intervertebral disc disease is a severe health condition in which the disc loses its function. The popular term describing what happens with the disc is slipping. However, in dogs, the discs do not slip – they burst.
IVDD is more common among chondrodystrophic breeds like Dachshunds, Cocker Spaniels, Pekingese dogs, Jack Russell terriers, Chihuahuas, Corgis, Beagles, Basset Hounds, and Poodles.
While some dogs with IVDD can be managed conservatively (cage rest and symptomatic therapy), the treatment of choice is the surgical correction of the burst disc.
Fractures and Trauma
Spinal and hind leg fractures are relatively common among dogs and usually associated with traumatic events like car accidents and falling from heights.
A dog with spinal or hind leg fracture requires immediate veterinary attention and surgical correction. For dogs with spinal trauma the prognosis depends on the promptness of the treatment.
Degenerative myelopathy in dogs is a slowly progressing condition characterized by neural tissue loss within the spinal cord. It starts with back leg weakness or wobbliness and culminates with paresis.
There is no cure for degenerative myelopathy. On the bright side, the condition is not painful, putting the management accent of life quality improvement – covering all slippery surfaces, using mobility aids, and preventing sores on the shuffling feet.
Finally, it should be noted that degenerative myelopathy is far less common than online forums and Google searches suggest. Many conditions with similar signs are usually misdiagnosed as DM.
As a general rule of thumb, if your dog is diagnosed with DM, prescribed some treatment, and actually positively responding to the treatment, you need to see another vet for re-evaluation as DM is most likely not your dog’s diagnosis.
Here is a real story of a dog with DM: Degenerative myelopathy in my corgi.
Acute polyradiculoneuritis (APN) is an auto-immune disease targeting and damaging the nerve roots located in the spine. The condition’s triggering cause is believed to be linked with Campylobacter exposure stemming from feeding raw chicken meat.
APN starts with hind leg wobbliness, which then spreads to the body and front leg and finally causes paralysis.
There is no specific treatment for APN. The management plan focuses on supportive care and physical therapy to prevent muscle atrophy.
The supportive care includes urination and defecation assistance, frequent position changes (to avoid bedsores and pneumonia), ventilated breathing (if the diaphragm muscles are affected), eye lubrication (if the dog cannot blink), and assisted feeding/drinking.
Because of the extent of the necessary supportive care, most patients require hospitalization.
Spinal Collapse Due to Calcium Deficient Diets
In the past, spinal collapse due to calcium deficient diets was a prevalent problem among canine pets. Today, the problem is relatively rare because most parents opt for commercially available diets and these formulas are complete and nutritionally balanced.
However, dogs fed homemade diets (without added supplements) can become calcium deficient and develop spinal collapse.
Ticks are pesky little external parasites that attach on the dog’s skin and feed on blood. In addition to triggering local irritation they are responsible for causing blood-borne infections.
There are many different tick species and over 40 of them are known for their ability to initiate neurologic problems. Namely, certain tick species can cause paralysis in dogs because their saliva contains a unique toxin.
Tick paralysis clinically manifests with hind leg weakness and unsteadiness (eventually progresses into paralysis), vomiting, voice changes, fast and shallow breathing. If the paralysis spreads to the diaphragm the condition can be lethal.
Tick paralysis can be treated with special serum and supportive therapy. However, considering the number of anti-tick preventive products, it is highly advisable to keep your dog protected (based on where you live, preferably year-round).
Fibrocartilagenous embolism (FCE) is an acute condition that develops when a small cartilage fragment blocks one of the blood vessels supplying the spinal cord. What makes the cartilage fragment to detach is not determined.
FCE is a painless spinal condition that manifests with hind leg weakness and wobbliness and it can affect one or both legs. Dogs with FCE are also unable to urinate.
There is no specific treatment for FCE. Instead all efforts are focused on rehabilitation – physical therapy and supportive care.
Other Causes of Back Feet Shuffling
The list of potential causes is quite common. With the most common causes covered, it is time to say a word or two about the other (not-so-common) cases of back feet shuffling in dogs:
- Snakebites – hind leg wobbliness is the first sign of snakebites.
- Botulism – a specific paralysis form caused by bacterial (Clostridium botulinum) food contamination.
- Myasthenia gravis – an autoimmune condition in which the immune system attacks the neuromuscular junctions.
- Syringomyelia (Chiari like malformation) – congenital malformation of the skull specific for Cavalier King Charles Spaniels
- Low blood sugar levels – can occur in diabetic dogs accidentally overdosed with insulin
- Hemivertebra, a congenital malformation of the spine seen in certain breeds like Pugs, French and English Bulldogs.
- Neospora caninum, a parasite usually attacking young puppies and causing toxoplasma-like symptoms.
If your dog starts shuffling his back feet, call your trusted vet and schedule an urgent appointment. Some underlying issues are transient and self-limiting, while others are more severe and require urgent treatment or extensive management.
Watching your dog shuffle his feet is a devastating experience. The sooner you call the vet, the sooner the situation will resolve, and your dog will hopefully be back to hia usual self.
Plus, more often than not, early diagnosis and rapid treatment onset positively affect the outcome.