We see our four-legged dogs walk constantly but we rarely ask ourselves how quadruped animals do it. Well, the truth is even science was a bit confused with this question up until recently. Here's some info about how dogs walk, along with what causes a swaying gait in dogs. 

How Do Dogs Normally Walk?

Now, we have it confirmed :when walking, dogs and all four-legged animals, use the following pattern: left hind leg, left front leg and then right hind leg, right front leg. The only difference between different quadruped animals is the timing of stepping.

 Dogs use this pattern for a very practical reason – because it ensures maximum stability. Namely, this way, there are always three feet on the ground supporting the body. The three feet on the ground form a triangle. The closer the body is to the center of that triangle the higher the stability. The walk is the only moving pattern featuring three feet on the ground.

In a nutshell, this is how dogs normally walk. However, dogs follow this pattern when walking intentionally. When on lead, they move without intention which makes them change their walking pattern. Common walking patterns in dogs include the amble, pace, trot, canter and gallop.

Amble is a walking pattern in which there are always two feet of the same side present on the ground. On the moving side, the hind leg leaves the ground slightly faster than the front leg. Ambling is much faster than walking, but not as fast as pacing or trotting. In fact, amble is a transitional gait, something between the normal walking and the non-intentional leading. Dogs use this pattern when transitioning from walk to pace or trot and when resting after prolonged trotting.

Pace is a walking pattern in which the hind and front feet of the same side leave the ground at the same time. Namely, the left hind and left front leg move at the same time and then the right hind and right front leg move once again at the same time.

 When pacing, there are always two feet on the ground. Pacing is considered to be a highly inefficient pattern because it causes constant side to side shifting of the gravity center. When pacing dogs cannot respond to speed changes and have a wide range of movements restricted unless they speed up to trot or slow down to amble.

Trot is a walking pattern in which the opposite legs move together. More precisely, the right front leg moves at the same time as the left hind leg and then the right hind leg moves at the same time as the left front leg. When trotting, two feet are always present on the ground. Trot is considered to be the most efficient pattern. That is why professionals use this pattern for gait evaluation.

Canter is an asymmetrical gait in which the left and right side move following different patterns. The pattern starts with the right hind leg, then the left hind leg moves simultaneously with the left front leg and the pattern is concluded with the right front leg. Canter is a very smooth and energy consuming moving pattern which is why dogs use it for long distance purposes.

Gallop is defined as a four-beat and double suspension moving pattern. In this gait the right hind leg moves first and is followed by the left hind leg and then both hind legs suspend in extension. The pattern proceeds with the left front leg followed by the right front leg and ends with both front legs suspending in flexion. Galloping is the fastest gait but it is also the most fatiguing one. Using this gait, racing dog breeds, such as Greyhounds, can reach speeds of up to 60 kilometers per hour (37 miles per hour).

Why Does My Dog Sway When Walking?

The walking pattern is scientifically termed as gait. Proper gait involves good balance and uninterrupted coordination. The balance and coordination promote smooth and rhythmical movement.

Conditions that impair the balance and coordination lead to abnormal gaits. Abnormal gaits clinically manifest with so-called "swaying." 

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There are several possible causes for dogs swaying back and forth. Following are some medical causes for a swaying gait in dogs. 

Vestibular disease can be triggered by a plethora of factors, but in most cases, the underlying cause remains unknown. The condition is more common in older dogs from certain breeds. It manifests with nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, swaying back and forth, head tilt, uncoordinated eye movements and falling at the side of the head tilt. Vestibular disease is a self-limiting condition and usually resolves on its own without veterinary assistance.

Traumas and injuries to the head may result in abnormal gaits. Depending on the severity of the injury, the consequences may be temporary or permanent.

Middle or inner ear infections affect the balance center which directly leads to loss of coordination, impaired balance and abnormal gait. To avoid long-term consequences, ear infections require prompt and aggressive treatment.

Stroke is often confused with vestibular disease because they have similar clinical manifestations. However, stroke is not self-limiting and always requires prompt veterinary attention.

Tumors of the brain often disrupt the connection between the central and peripheral components of the nervous system which ultimately results in neurological signs. The clinical manifestation usually involves swaying back and forth, head tilt and rapid eye movements. Sadly, brain tumors are hard to manage and more often than not cannot be successfully treated.

Tick-borne illnesses such as the Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever transmitted by the lone star tick and American dog tick cause neurological issues (loss of balance and coordination) as well as stiff gait. Unless treated, this fever can be deadly.

Other possible causes include ingestion of toxic substances such as the dog ingesting household cleaners, antifreeze, plants, medications (pet or human), chocolate, low blood glucose (as seen in small breed puppies and dogs who ingested products with xylitol, Wobbler syndrome or a bulging disc in the spine.

What Should I Do If My Dogs Sways When Walking?

If you notice your dog swaying call your vet and schedule and appointment. The vet will determine the underlying cause and suggest the best treatment strategy. 

Some causes of swaying are benign and will resolve on their own, but others are more serious and potentially life-threatening. Since you cannot tell the difference on your own, seeing the vet is of paramount importance. 

About the Author

Dr. Ivana Crnec is a graduate of the University Sv. Kliment Ohridski’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine in Bitola, Republic of Macedonia.


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