Paralysis in Dogs

Published Oct. 27, 2023
A corgi with their wheelchair.

In This Article


What Is Paralysis in Dogs?

Paralysis—the inability to move one or more limbs—occurs in dogs when the brain, spinal cord, nerves, and muscles don’t communicate properly with one another to produce normal body movements.

Nerve receptors normally receive these messages and send them along the spinal cord to the brain.

The brain then sends a message back down the spinal cord to nerves that travel to the muscles, telling them to move the limb. 

Depending on the underlying cause, a dog’s legs can be partially paralyzed (paresis) or completely paralyzed.

Paralysis can affect only the back legs, only the front legs, or all four limbs (tetraplegia).

Front-leg paralysis is often associated with injury to the nerve roots in the neck and shoulder, or those that originate at the brachial plexus in the armpit.

Hind-leg paralysis originates from injury to a dog’s lower back or tailbone, or the nerves located between the spinal cord and the hind legs (lumbosacral plexus).

Damage to one of these areas interrupts communication between the nerves, brain, and spinal cord, causing paralysis or paresis. Nerve trauma is the most common cause of leg paralysis in dogs.

If your dog is not walking normally or you suspect that they are paralyzed, this is a medical emergency. Your dog should be examined immediately by their veterinarian or at the nearest veterinary emergency hospital.

That visit is crucial, as paralysis often worsens quickly, along with the likelihood of your dog regaining normal bodily function.

Symptoms of Paralysis in Dogs

Symptoms of paralysis in dogs include:

  • Inability to move all four legs

  • Inability to move the hind legs (paraplegia)

  • Inability to flex the joints in affected limbs

  • Lack of full-limb control (paresis)

  • Dragging the hind legs

  • Knuckling or tripping over the paws

  • Weakness

  • Loss of muscle mass

  • Neck pain, characterized by holding the head down, front-leg lameness, and reluctance to move the head or jump

  • Spinal pain or leg pain

Causes of Paralysis in Dogs

A dog can become partially or completely paralyzed for many reasons.

Trauma, such as being hit by a car, is the most common cause of paralysis in dogs.

Although paralysis can occur in any dog breed and at any age, some breeds are more prone to medical conditions that might lead to paralysis, such as:

Additional causes of paralysis in dogs include:

  • Infection or inflammation of the muscles (polymyositis)

  • Inflammation of the nerves (polyneuritis)

  • Blocked spinal blood vessel (embolus)

  • Blocked blood flow to the rear legs (aortic embolus)

  • A tumor or cancer in the brain or spinal cord

  • Botulism bacterial toxin

  • Myasthenia gravis (a disorder that causes extreme muscle weakness)

  • Hypothyroidism (low thyroid hormone)

  • Genetic malformation of the spine or vertebral column

  • Severe or chronic exposure to pesticides or insecticides, especially organophosphates, which can cause disruption to the nervous system

How Veterinarians Diagnose Paralysis in Dogs

If your dog is paralyzed or is showing signs of partial paralysis, your vet will perform a complete physical exam, including checking their neurologic reflexes.

Part of the neurologic exam will assess your dog’s limbs, head, legs, and back for pain or lack of a normal pain response.

It’s important to share all information with your vet about your dog’s health, including any possible injuries and any travel or tick exposure they may have had.

Your vet may also perform bloodwork, including a complete blood count and chemistry panel, and urinalysis. These tests will detect inflammation, infection, or the presence of a tick-transmitted disease.

While X-rays may be helpful initially to look for spinal abnormalities, a CT scan or MRI will provide a more detailed picture of your dog’s brain and spine.

A sample of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) may also be taken by your vet to look for signs of inflammation or infection.

Results of these preliminary tests could indicate a need for a biopsy of the muscle or nerve.

Electrical nerve stimulation can be used to determine the exact location of a nerve injury, and to determine the injury’s extent or assess function of the injured nerve.

It’s extremely important to determine the exact location of the problem, because the closer a nerve injury is to the muscle, the better the chance for recovery from paralysis.

Treatment of Paralysis in Dogs

Depending on the underlying cause of your dog’s paralysis, they may require hospitalization with intensive care.

Paralyzed dogs are often hospitalized during the diagnostic period because spinal X-rays, CT scans, MRI, CSF collection, and biopsies require anesthesia.

Nerves can regenerate after an injury, but it is a slow process (1 inch per month), and return to full function is determined by exactly locating the nerve injury.

There’s not much your vet can do to assist nerve regeneration, although laser therapy and acupuncture have shown some promise in helping to speed up the process.

Anti-inflammatory medications such as carprofen or prednisone may be prescribed if swelling is present.

Muscle-relaxing medications such as methocarbamol may be used, especially in dogs with IVDD.

Pain medications are also important to keep affected dogs comfortable—mild pain can be controlled with oral medications while severe pain will require hospitalization for intravenous (IV) medications.

If your dog is unable to urinate or is having trouble urinating, they will need a urinary catheter placed to empty their bladder while they are hospitalized.

Dogs with IVDD or certain tumors can undergo surgery to decompress the affected areas and at times, limb function can be restored.

Recovery and Management of Paralysis in Dogs

The likelihood of a dog returning to full function depends on the cause of their paralysis.

Horner's syndrome indicates that a nerve root has been torn and the chance of recovery from this type of paralysis is unlikely.

However, if your dog has some voluntary movement of their limb(s), along with pain sensation and the presence of spinal reflexes over the first one to two months, their prognosis for recovery is better.

Dogs that have lost the ability to urinate will require bladder expression at home on a regular basis.

Your vet will teach you how to safely express your dog’s bladder. Wearing a doggy diaper will help keep dogs with fecal incontinence clean.

During the recovery process, it is crucial that a paralyzed dog wear a protective cone to avoid self-harm. If your dog has pain or lacks sensation in the limb(s), they may chew or bite the area, making the collar important in their recovery.

If there is no movement or sensation in the affected limb in three to six months, amputation may be the best option to give your dog the best quality of life. Your vet can advise you on what is best for your pup.

Proper nursing care of paralyzed dogs is important to prevent pressure sores. Techniques to keep the dog as comfortable as possible include:

  • Always keeping them on a soft surface.

  • Rotating their position.

  • Applying heat and massage.

  • Using a sling to walk them.

    • Using a sling or long, soft cloth passed under your dog’s belly and held up on either side of the body, assist your pup while walking by carrying some of their body weight for them.

Your dog might be a candidate for a special wheelchair to assist them in maintaining mobility while paralyzed.

Dogs can adapt well to being paralyzed. With proper care given by an attentive pet parent, they can live a long, happy, healthy life.

Prevention of Paralysis in Dogs

Ensuring that your dog is always supervised can help prevent any possible injury or trauma that could cause paralysis.

Vaccination is also crucial to help prevent viral diseases, such as distemper and rabies, that can cause paralysis.

It is also important to keep your dog on year-round tick prevention to help protect them against tick paralysis.

Screening breeding dogs for genetic conditions like myasthenia gravis and degenerative myelopathy can also help prevent their puppies from developing paralysis in the future.

Featured Image: Serhii Ivashchuk/iStock / Getty Images Plus via Getty Images

Barri J. Morrison, DVM


Barri J. Morrison, DVM


Barri Morrison was born and raised and currently resides in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. She went to University of Florida for her...

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