Why Do German Shepherds Drag Their Hind Legs? [2023]


Why Do German Shepherds Drag Their Hind Legs? [2023]


I was recently in the Chicago suburbs enjoying a cafe latte outside while pounding away on my laptop when a man with a German Shepherd dog breed caught my attention. What I eventually saw was a German Shepherd that had a bit of a drag on his back legs and an apparent loss in his mobility. I couldn’t take my gaze off the two of them because, at first, the dog was lying down, with the front part of his body upright like dogs do. In this post, I am exploring German Shepherd back leg problems that are unfortunately quite common.

German Shepherd laying down in the grass head up

I found it intriguing how patient the owner was in allowing the Shepherd to sit serenely, enjoying the scenery around him. It was mesmerizing, so I kept watching.

I overheard the owner say calmly ”are you ready to head home now buddy?” which signaled his dog to slowly pull himself up off the sidewalk.

I watched the dog’s eyes gazing straight ahead as he struggled to pull himself up onto all four paws. Within seconds I caught a glimpse of his owner wincing the tiniest amount as if it hurt him even more to watch.

The owner clearly felt the pain his beloved canine did.

I cannot articulate the love between the two even though their bond was quite obvious to anyone watching. The companions shared a mutual loyalty and compassion for each other; it was obvious but also subtle.

I wondered if I would witness something I have seen many times in German Shepherds; dragging of the back half of their body, the hind legs.

As they made their way on the sidewalk towards me, the dog’s back legs seemed weak. They were not as strong as the front legs. The drooping wasn’t as severe as I have seen in before, but I still noticed it immediately.

As they started to come towards me, the man patiently keeping pace with his dog, I mustard up the courage to blurt out, ”what a beautiful dog”.

As the owner’s eyes lit up, I knew I could inquire more.

“Thanks!” he said with a small smile. ”He’s a great dog.”

“Hey, why does your German Shepherd drag his hind legs?”, I asked.

”Yeh, he has recently been diagnosed with degenerative myelopathy. I’m getting him out to enjoy sunshine and stay active……… while he still can”.

The man didn’t need to say anything else. I understood the future was looking bleak for his canine companion. Out of curiosity, I started to research German Shepherds who suffer from degenerative myelopathy.

Here is what I found.


Why does a German Shepherd drag his back legs?

An adult German Shepherd who’s back legs seem to be dragging is probably suffering from degenerative myelopathy. The condition is quote common among this breed of dog. One of the first warning signs is a German Shepherd that stands with his back paws together. Two other common reasons a German Shepherd’s back legs are dragging include hip dysplasia, and osteoarthritis. 

This explains exactly why the German Shepherd I recently witnessed was struggling to get up. Although his paws were not dragging, he was dragging and still probably in the very early stages of DM.

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Title: German Shepherd Back Leg Problems and Associated Challenges

German Shepherd Back Leg Problems and Challenges
German Shepherds are susceptible to a disease called degenerative myelopathy (DM), which can lead to various challenges related to their back legs. Dogs with DM may exhibit symptoms such as limping, dragging, and a loss of control in their back legs. Understanding these challenges can help owners provide appropriate care and support for their beloved German Shepherds.
1. Limping and Dragging Back Leg: One of the primary challenges seen in German Shepherds with degenerative myelopathy is a noticeable limp in the back leg. As the disease progresses, the affected leg may drag while walking, causing difficulty in maintaining a normal gait.
2. Loss of Mobility and Coordination: German Shepherds with degenerative myelopathy may experience a gradual loss of mobility and coordination in their back legs. This can make it challenging for them to stand, walk, or perform daily activities that were once effortless.
3. Crossed Paws and Inability to Unlock Limbs: An observable behavior in German Shepherds with degenerative myelopathy is crossing their paws in the back when attempting to stand up. This occurs because they are unable to unlock their limbs properly, adding to the overall challenges they face.
4. Development of Secondary Conditions: While degenerative myelopathy itself may not cause pain, it can lead to the development of secondary conditions such as arthritis. Arthritis can further contribute to discomfort, pain, and reduced mobility in the affected back leg of a German Shepherd.

German Shepherds, being predisposed to degenerative myelopathy, are prone to experiencing various challenges related to their back legs. Owners may notice their German Shepherds limping or dragging one or both hind legs. This limping can be a clear indication of a problem in the affected leg, requiring attention and care.

As degenerative myelopathy progresses, German Shepherds may suffer a loss of mobility and coordination in their back legs. Activities like walking, running, and climbing stairs may become increasingly difficult for them. In severe cases, complete paralysis of the back legs can occur.

A distinctive behavior seen in German Shepherds with degenerative myelopathy is crossing their paws in the back when attempting to stand up. This is due to the impaired ability to unlock their limbs properly. The crossed paws further contribute to the challenges faced by these dogs, affecting their stability and balance.

Additionally, the progression of degenerative myelopathy can lead to the development of secondary conditions, such as arthritis, in the affected back leg of a German Shepherd. Arthritis can cause pain, discomfort, and stiffness, exacerbating the challenges already posed by the degenerative myelopathy.

Understanding and recognizing these challenges is crucial for owners of German Shepherds with back leg problems. Seeking veterinary care and guidance, providing appropriate pain management, and considering supportive devices like harnesses or carts can help alleviate some of the difficulties faced by these dogs. Ensuring a comfortable and fulfilling life for German Shepherds with back leg problems requires attentive care and a proactive approach to their overall well-being.

Knuckling in German Shepherds can be caused due to a variety of different factors, such as genetics, injury, or a neurological disorder. This condition can occur in both puppies and adult German Shepherds, however it is more commonly seen in puppies. If a German Shepherd puppy is born with their back legs close together and their feet turning out, this can be an indication of a genetic predisposition to knuckling. Injuries can also cause knuckling, such as a trauma to the spinal cord or a severe strain on the leg muscles. Lastly, neurological disorders can also be the cause of knuckling in German Shepherds.

The symptoms of German Shepherds that drag their hind legs include the dragging of the hind legs behind the body and difficulty walking or running. The feet of the German Shepherd may also turn outwards, and the back legs may be held close together. Additionally, the German Shepherd may show signs of discomfort and pain when walking.

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In order to treat knuckling in German Shepherds, it is important to identify the underlying cause. If the knuckling is due to an injury, then rest and rehabilitation can help to reduce the symptoms. For neurological disorders, medication and physical therapy may be needed in order to reduce the discomfort associated with knuckling. If the knuckling is due to genetics, then surgery may be an option to correct the physical deformity.

In conclusion, German Shepherds that drag their hind legs can be caused by a variety of different factors. If you notice your German Shepherd dragging their hind legs, it is important to seek veterinary advice in order to determine the cause and appropriate treatment. With the correct diagnosis and treatment plan, knuckling can often be managed effectively.

What is degenerative myelopathy?

A disease found in dogs, especially German Shepherds, that is very similar to ALS or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Basically, there is a breakdown of Myelin (a protective coat) around the spinal cord. The prognosis for progression of degenerative myelopathy is approximately 6 months to 3 years, with no cure at this time.

I have no doubt, being the owner of a dog who gets this diagnosis is undoubtedly heart-breaking. The disease will slowly or quickly progress.

What causes degenerative myelopathy?

At this time, the exact cause of degenerative myelopathy is not known. A gene mutation seems to be consistent in most cases, and tends to be specific to German Shepherds. Other breeds are effected too, including the Cardigan Welsh corgi and the Chesapeake Bay retriever.

According to Dr. Aly Cohen, a gene variant labeled SOD1A can be linked to degenerative myelopathy.

DM in most dog breeds is caused by a mutation in the SOD1 gene (SOD1A variant). ​​Dogs with two copies of this variant are considered at a higher risk for developing DM, although it is not guaranteed that they will develop the disease. 

Dr. Aly Cohen, Cornell University

What are the signs of DM?

There are several stages of degenerative myelopathy. Signs and symptoms can cross over each other through the different stages, but this table can be used as a general guide.



Loosing strength in the back legsInability to properly use bladder/urine issuesDifficulty breathing
Crossing back paws when standingUnable to control bowel movementsInternal bleeding
Worn down paw nails from draggingUnable to get upCrying, moaning
Curled under paws, knucklingBones with soresSad, lethargic, depressed
Trembling of back legsSusceptible to infectionsSeizures
Challenges standing up on all foursOrgans start to shut down
Any animal in the late stages or end stages (of degenerative myelopathy) or any other disease should already be working closely with a veterinarian.

Is degenerative myelopathy painful for dogs?

There does not seem to be pain associated with degenerative myelopathy, especially in the early stages. If your dog is in pain, or showing any signs, you should immediately talk to your vet about ways to treat the pain. His pain may also be alerting you to another condition associated with DM, such as arthritis. Dogs hide pain well, and since they cannot communicate their struggles, it is important to watch for signals.

There are several ways to help your dog including but not limited to:

  • Exercise
  • Cushion or mat for extra padding when sitting
  • Wheelchair
  • Harness
  • CBD oil


What is degenerative myelopathy (DM) in German Shepherds?Degenerative myelopathy is a progressive neurological disorder characterized by the deterioration of the spinal cord, specifically the nerves controlling the hind legs. It leads to a loss of coordination and control, resulting in dragging and limpness in the back legs. As the disease progresses, it can spread to other limbs, presenting additional challenges for the dog.
What are the symptoms of degenerative myelopathy in German Shepherds?Early symptoms include subtle changes in gait and coordination. As the disease advances, hind legs become progressively weaker, making standing, walking, and eventually mobility difficult. Dogs may exhibit the “knuckling” behavior, crossing their paws in the back when standing due to the inability to properly unlock their limbs. Although DM itself does not typically cause pain, dogs may experience discomfort from other associated conditions like arthritis.
Is degenerative myelopathy in German Shepherds a painful condition?Degenerative myelopathy itself is not typically painful. However, as the disease progresses, secondary conditions like arthritis may develop, which can cause pain and discomfort. It’s important to address these additional complications and work with a veterinarian experienced in managing degenerative myelopathy to provide appropriate pain management and overall care.
Can degenerative myelopathy in German Shepherds be treated?There is no known cure for degenerative myelopathy, and no specific treatment can stop or reverse its progression. However, symptom management strategies can be employed to support the dog and improve its quality of life. Physical therapy, assistive devices, and environmental modifications can help maintain mobility and reduce the impact of the disease. A knowledgeable veterinarian can offer guidance on pain management and care.
How long do German Shepherds with degenerative myelopathy typically live?The lifespan of German Shepherds with degenerative myelopathy can vary. On average, dogs with this condition may live for several months to a few years after the onset of symptoms. However, the disease is progressive and incurable, impacting the dog’s quality of life over time. Proper management, including physical therapy, pain management, and supportive care, can enhance well-being for as long as possible.

Please note that the information provided in the table is a summary, and it’s always advisable to consult with a veterinarian for specific guidance regarding the diagnosis, treatment, and management of degenerative myelopathy in German Shepherds.

German Shepherds are susceptible to a disease called degenerative myelopathy; a deterioration of their spinal cord.

Over time, a dog suffering with this condition will start to loose control of his back legs, making them drag and be limp. Dogs will also cross their paws in the back when standing up because they are unable to unlock them properly.

Eventually, the disease will spread through the dog’s limbs and cause a number of other challenges. Dogs typically are not in pain from DM, but other conditions associated with DM can bring on pain (like arthritis). Working with a veterinarian who has experience with this condition can offer support and treatment of discomfort during the different stages of degenerative myelopathy.

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If your dog recently started loosing strength in their back legs, or started to drag their hind lags, you should consult with your vet. Although there is no cure, there are things you can do to help your dog during the different phases.

My heart goes out to any dog owner dealing with this condition. The good news is, it is quite common so there are several ways to get support. Your veterinarian will be able to point you in the right direction, but I hope this helps get you started.

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