My Dog Keeps Falling Down
Although most of us who own aging dogs are accustomed to seeing our dogs lounging on their sides, dogs are, in fact, designed to support their own weight for lengthy periods of time. Their four sturdy legs serve them well in this respect, and their musculoskeletal system is structured to withstand a great deal of wear and tear.
With this in mind, it should be both a surprise and a concern when a dog repeatedly stumbles and/or falls down. You need to figure out whether the stumbling or falling is due to weakness, pain, or loss of balance. Further investigation may reveal whether the cause is musculoskeletal, neurological, or cardiologic in nature.
What to Look For
Start by placing your dog in a balanced standing position on a flat, even surface. Sit or stand facing her and observe her closely. Look at the way she holds her body, paying particular attention to the carriage of her head and neck, the position of her tail, and the symmetry of her four limbs.
To begin your closer examination, cradle your dog's head in your hands and look closely at her eyes for any unusual movements or differences in pupil size or response to light. Move her head gently in all directions to check for stiffness or pain. Examine her ears for heat, pain, and discharge. Open her mouth to check for evidence of pain, growths, or infection.
Next, move on to your dog's spine. Using your fingers in a “walking” manner, apply gentle but firm pressure to each sequential intervertebral space, checking for discomfort or weakness. Finally, examine each of your dog's limbs, first by lifting it up and placing it down with the top of the paw “knuckled” under. Check for your dog's reaction to this incorrect placement.
Next, lift each limb and put it through a normal range of motion, checking for discomfort, grinding, or cracking. If your dog is so unsteady on her feet that she has trouble maintaining an upright position during this part of the exam, lay her on her side and conduct the limb exams in that position. If, during the “knuckling” exercise, your dog fails to correct the position you have forced her paw into, pinch the toes of that paw and watch to see if she pulls her paw back.
What to Do
Next, ask yourself the following questions:
- Does your dog's head tilt to one side? If so, your dog may be off balance due to an ear infection or some other process that is affecting her inner ear, resulting in vestibular syndrome. Take your dog to the vet to be evaluated and treated. Only in very few cases do such presentations resolve spontaneously.
- Are your dog's eyes moving in a rapid, repetitious, side-to-side or up-and-down pattern? This is called nystagmus, and it is often associated with vestibular disease.
- Does your dog complain, flinch, or drop to the floor when you palpate her intervertebral spaces? If so, there is a strong likelihood that she has some form of spinal disease, such as intervertebral disk disease, spinal arthritis, or even some type of vertebral mass. Take her to your vet or a veterinary neurologist.
- Is your dog's tail tucked up underneath her? This is usually a sign of fear, discomfort, or anxiety. It's the discomfort that is of the most concern, particularly if it is spinal in origin, as mentioned above. A tucked tail can also be an indication that your dog's spine or anal sacs are bothering her. Be sure to be thorough when you examine her spine in the hopes of identifying the source of the problem. Any spinal pain should be evaluated by a veterinary neurologist. Anal sac discomfort, on the other hand, would be an incidental finding, correctable by following the advice in “How to Empty Your Dog's Anal Sacs” [not available online].
- Does your dog fail to right her paws when you perform the “knuckling” maneuver? If so, she has a proprioceptive deficit. This means she doesn't know where her paw is, like your leg feels when it “falls asleep.” This is a neurological problem and should be evaluated by a veterinary neurologist. If the “pinching” procedure doesn't cause your dog to withdraw the paw, you should see the neurologist right away. If the paw is briskly withdrawn, then the proprioceptive deficit may resolve on its own and it's all right to wait a day or two for improvement. Sometimes an inflammatory process can cause the problem with proprioception, and once the inflammation improves, so does the proprioception.
- Did your exam reveal nothing abnormal? Your dog's problem may be due to weakness or circulatory problems. Make sure that your dog has had enough to eat over the last few hours. If she hasn't, try rubbing some Karo corn syrup or pancake syrup over her gums. This will get some glucose into her system and improve her strength. If this seems to happen repeatedly and she appears to be drinking excessively, have her tested for diabetes. If you notice that your dog's gums and the tissues lining her mouth are pale, her circulation may be poor due to heart disease or some internal bleeding. Have her evaluated.
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