Bringing home a new puppy is always an exciting moment, and the goofy lack of coordination promises to fill your heart and soul with laughter and happiness. But if your puppy seems to be unsteady on their back legs, you may be wondering if it’s a cause for concern.
In general, puppies are uncoordinated, but that doesn’t mean it’s normal for them to struggle to use their back legs. We’ll cover what normal puppy back legs look like, as well as possible reasons your puppy’s back legs are weak, to help you decide when veterinary attention is necessary.
Puppy has weak back or hind legs
Puppies are usually somewhat uncoordinated when you first bring them home, but it is a cause for concern if your puppy’s back legs are suddenly weak and shaking. A normal puppy has back legs that, while uncoordinated, do not shake or struggle to support their body.
It’s expected that puppies are somewhat clumsy, especially during the first 4 months of their life. They may show a lack of balance and agility.
Puppies are learning about their world as well as their own bodies, and how to control their movements.
This normal clumsiness should not result in a puppy that regularly struggles to stand, with their back legs shaking or otherwise appearing weak. It’s especially a concern if this occurs suddenly, as physical or behavior changes with a sudden onset are more likely to indicate a need to seek medical attention.
If your puppy is shaking then be sure to read our post about it here.
When do puppy’s legs get stronger?
In general, puppies begin to support themselves on their legs between 2-3 weeks old. This turns into the ability to actually walk and move around by 3-4 weeks old.
The walking that puppies can do around 3-4 weeks of age is very clumsy, uncoordinated, and wobbly. By 5 weeks old, they should be attempting to run and play, although they still can be quite wobbly and flop on their face when tackling various obstacles.
From weeks 3-7 overall is a critical period of development for puppies, both of their body and their brain. Good breeders and foster homes will introduce puppies to a variety of things to help them learn good balance and proprioception, including:
Various surfaces, both in texture and levelness
Different types of obstacles and equipment, such as balance discs, ball pits, and short boxes for climbing
Outdoor explorations, either in a pen or a safe off-leash area, to experience changes in terrain and their environment
Puppies should not be forced to do any exercise at this age, but puppy-directed play and interaction with a safe environment. This helps to set puppies up for success and teach them about their world and their own bodies.
All of this should be occurring during your puppy’s time with their mom and littermates. Puppies should not leave the litter until they are at least 8 weeks old, at which point they will be relatively steady on their feet.
Thus, when you bring your puppy home, you should expect the occasional tumble or slip as they continue growing – especially if you have a larger breed of dog – but they should be substantially stronger on their feet than younger puppies.
Your puppy should not exhibit signs of wobbly or shaky back legs, especially if they are on a level surface with plenty of traction. You should notice an improvement in their coordination as they grow, from being able to run faster, to being capable of jumping greater distances.
By the time your puppy is 3-4 months old, they should have very little, if any, unsteadiness. In fact, puppies 4 months and older should be able to walk forward and backward on different surfaces, navigate safe puppy agility equipment, and even learn to swim!
Why does my puppy have weak back legs?
If your puppy is struggling to walk, is unsteady on their feet, and has weak back legs that shake, there’s likely a physical concern you should address with your puppy’s veterinarian. Puppies should only have weak back legs at around 3 weeks old, and you shouldn’t bring a new puppy into your home until they are at least 8 weeks old.
There are many medical reasons why a dog may have weak back legs, but not all of them are found in puppies. If you have an adult dog that is struggling with weak back legs, the list of possible conditions will be different.
Did you know every 6 seconds a pet owner is faced with a vet bill of over $1000? Be sure to read our post, Is pet insurance worth it? 5 shocking facts you need to know…
Shaking Puppy Syndrome
One condition that may affect puppies, causing them to shake and have difficulty with balance and coordination, is called shaking puppy syndrome. This is also known as hypomyelination and is a condition affecting the nervous system.
The severity of the disease varies and can be a mild condition that your puppy outgrows by 3-4 months of age, or a severe condition that drastically shortens your dog’s life.
There is a hereditary component to this disease, with Springer Spaniels, Golden Retrievers, and Bernese Mountain Dogs among breeds commonly affected.
Symptoms may appear to get worse with excitement and when eating, and improve when the puppy is at rest.
There is no test to diagnose shaking puppy syndrome, or treatment for the disease. Instead, your puppy’s veterinarian may come to this diagnosis after ruling out other potential conditions.
Hypoglycemia, AKA low blood sugar, is especially a risk to smaller breeds of dogs under 3 months old. Puppies may have weak muscles, tremors, and walk with a staggering gait.
As with shaking puppy syndrome, the symptoms are not always present 24/7. Instead, they occur when a puppy’s blood sugar drops too low, typically caused due to overexertion or going too long between eating.
Corn syrup applied to your puppy’s gums should help give them the boost they need to raise their blood sugar, and they often grow out of being regularly hypoglycemic with age.
Swimmer Puppy Syndrome
Puppies suffering from swimmer puppy syndrome are unable to stand or walk at the normal age of 3 weeks – instead, they paddle along the ground, hence the name of the condition.
It’s not known the exact cause of swimmer puppy syndrome, but both genetic and environmental factors likely play a role.
Treated early, swimmer puppy syndrome can be overcome in many dogs. This condition is easily noticed by the time a puppy is just a few weeks old, so ideally, whoever has raised your puppy prior to you acquiring them has already started treatment.
Helping a puppy struggling with swimmer puppy syndrome involves ensuring they are not on flat or slippery surfaces. This gives them the best chance of finding traction. Various physiotherapy treatments, including special harnesses or slings and swimming, can also be utilized.
This video shows what Swimmer Puppy Syndrome looks like and how this owner resolves the problem.
Other Reasons for Weak Back Legs in Puppies
Less commonly, your puppy may be unsteady on their back legs due to a neurological condition, distemper, ingesting something toxic, or even being scared and unsure.
However, it’s important to note that puppies should not have weak or shaky back legs by the time they are old enough to come home with you. Thus, if you notice concerning symptoms, you should take your puppy to their veterinarian to work on obtaining a diagnosis and possible treatment.
8-week-old puppy with weak back legs
By the time your puppy is 8 weeks old, they should be able to support themselves. They may be clumsy on occasion, but shouldn’t fall or have difficulty standing.
Thus, if your 8-week old puppy is struggling with wobbly back legs, you should visit a veterinarian.
It may be the case that your puppy has one of the conditions we covered above, or you may find out your puppy is actually much younger than you thought.
Some unscrupulous breeders and rescues have been known to sell puppies much younger than 8 weeks old with a fake birthdate, making them appear to be old enough to leave their litter.
Puppies can become a lot of work as they grow older, leading people running a puppy mill or retail rescue situation to push puppies out the door before they’re 8 weeks old.
In many places, it’s illegal to sell a puppy before it is 8 weeks old, so changing the date of birth to make the puppies appear older is one tactic that shady people have used to sell puppies early.
If you haven’t been around enough young puppies to readily determine their age, or you didn’t know how to do better research on the ethics of the breeder or rescue, it can be easy to take their word for it until your puppy appears developmentally delayed for their age.
Regardless, a veterinary trip is in order for any 8 week old puppy with weak and shaking back legs. The veterinarian can determine if there is a medical cause, as well as verify your puppy’s age based on their physical development.
12-week-old puppy with weak back legs
At 12 weeks old, normal puppy back legs are strong and supportive. If your puppy is unsteady, especially if it is a new condition, you should visit their veterinarian as soon as practical.
Some changes in their gait may be related to growth, especially if your puppy has structural concerns such as being cow-hocked.
Depending on your puppy’s individual growth, they may outgrow this awkward phase or they may have alterations to their gait for life.
As with 8-week old puppies, it’s also the case that your puppy may be affected by one of the medical concerns we covered earlier, such as shaking puppy syndrome or hyperglycemia.
Hip dysplasia is a common concern of many dog owners, especially if your puppy appears weak in their rear. However, it’s unusual for a 12-week old puppy to display signs of hip dysplasia. Symptoms, if present, usually don’t show up until at least 4 months of age, and most commonly appear in young adult dogs.
Weak, unsteady, and wobbly back legs that are affecting your 12-week old puppy’s ability to function warrants a trip to their veterinarian.
How to make puppy hind legs stronger
First, it’s important to rule out medical conditions that may be making your puppy appear to be weak and unsteady in their hind end. It’s not typical of developmentally sound puppies to struggle with their back legs.
Because puppies are still growing and have open growth plates, it’s inappropriate to do any specific and planned strength or endurance exercises with them. For more information on puppy exercise, be sure to read our guide here.
Instead, you can help your puppy learn to have a better understanding of their own body by providing them opportunities to explore various terrain, or by teaching them to navigate wobbly equipment and low to the ground obstacles.
This understanding of proprioception starts when the puppy first starts to gain their senses and ability to walk, around 3 weeks of age, so an introduction to new surfaces and obstacles while your puppy is still with the breeder or rescue sets them up for success.
While not every shelter or rescue has the resources to set up a safe pen of activities for puppies to grow their body awareness and start their socialization, puppy breeders should always do this with their litters.
Breeders choose to raise puppies and should want the best for them, which includes setting puppies up for success by giving them appropriate opportunities to learn about their world and how to move through it.