Why Do German Shepherds Drag Their Hind Legs?

German shepherd hind legs

Why Do German Shepherds Drag Their Hind Legs?

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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 caught my attention. What I eventually saw was a German Shepherd that had a bit of a drag on his back legs.

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.

German Shepherd laying down in the grass head up

What I found intriguing was how patient the owner was in allowing the Shepherd to sit serenely, just enjoying the scenery around him. It was kind of 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 just 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.

all-natural-dog-treats

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.

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.

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.

DEGENERATIVE MYELOPATHY
GERMAN SHEPARDS

EARLY
STAGES
LATE
STAGES

END
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

Summary

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.

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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