Muscle atrophy in dogs

As dogs get older, their muscles gradually begin to lose function and waste away in a process called muscle atrophy. It’s a natural side effect of getting older, but it can also result from inactivity after an injury or illness, like a broken leg. Here’s what you need to know about muscle atrophy in dogs.

Should I be concerned about muscle atrophy in dogs?

General muscle atrophy is typically not an emergency situation and has likely been progressing for a while as your dog has gotten older. You can make an appointment at the vet to get it evaluated, but it’s not urgent. It becomes more severe if the atrophying muscles are concentrated around the neck or head. That can be an emergency, so call your vet right as soon as you notice it.

What are the potential causes of muscle atrophy in dogs?

Muscle atrophy in dogs is common and inevitable. Here’s why it happens:

  • Age. As dogs age, their muscles lose function.
  • Injury or illness. If your dog was sidelined by an illness or an injury and unable to exercise much, their muscles have likely begun to atrophy. This can be resolved with exercise.
  • Nerve damage. If a nerve is damaged, the muscles it supplies will waste away. This can occur suddenly with an injury, or it can be a gradual degenerative issue, such as osteoarthritis of the spine.
  • Myositis. This is an issue when the immune system begins to attack the muscles, wearing away at them.
  • Degenerative myelopathy. This neurological disease affects older dogs and begins to paralyze them from the back half. There is no cure.

What are the different versions of muscle atrophy in dogs?

Muscle atrophy may be caused by different issues, like age or injury, but the end result is the same: the muscles themselves waste away. Atrophied muscles inhibit the dog’s movement and negatively impact their quality of life.

What are the next steps and tests for muscle atrophy in dogs?

To determine why your dog’s muscles are atrophying, your vet will do a complete physical exam, which will include a body condition score. After that, they will begin to rule out possible causes, like myositis, by doing blood work, X-rays, CT scans and MRIs, and urine and stool analysis. For degenerative myelopathy, the vet might also add some extra bloodwork, myelography, or a spinal tap to their diagnostic workup.

What other symptoms are often associated with muscle atrophy in dogs?

Muscle atrophy in dogs can cause its own set of symptoms, including limping, balance problems, and paralysis. Watch out for these other symptoms that could happen in conjunction with muscle atrophy:

  • Weight loss
  • Weakness
  • Lethargy
  • Body sagging
  • Rolling or dragging paws
  • Arthritis
  • Lack of coordination
  • Thinning muscles
  • Inability to open the mouth without severe pain

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