cat's back legs have become weak
Cat Health and Wellness

Why Are My Cat’s Back Legs Not Working (Weak, Wobbly, and Stiff)?

Cats rely heavily on their hind legs for mobility. Felines distribute their weight equally over four paws and use their back legs to pounce. This makes weak, stiff, or wobbly back legs problematic and easy to spot. Your cat will be in discomfort and become more reluctant to move than usual.

Rear leg problems due to osteoarthritis are very common in cats that are 10+. This will make a cat’s legs more rigid and inflexible. There are other explanations for a cat’s back legs not working including liver problems, blood clots, toxicity, infection, and impact injuries.

A cat’s rear legs ceasing to function properly is rarely the only sign. Look for other changes in behavior and posture to find out the other symptoms. These will help you understand what’s causing your cat’s hind leg problems.

Back Leg Problems in Cats

Senior cats often experience problems with their legs. In fact, the rear legs are usually the first part of a cat’s body to become compromised.

When a cat loses control of its rear legs, it will struggle to perform crucial everyday activities. Your cat will be less mobile and unable to jump as high. Your cat may even struggle to use its litter tray.

Leg issues are aggravated by a lack of movement, so encourage your cat to remain mobile. Subtle lifestyle changes can be highly beneficial.

What Are the Signs of Stiff Back Legs in Cats?

Any changes in behavior should be scrutinized. These can include:

Slow Movement, Unsteady GaitThe cat needs to walk slowly as it’s very unsteady on its feet.
Lethargy, Reluctance to Run or JumpThe cat does not want to move because it’s painful and awkward.
Disinterest in PlayThe cat cannot leap and hunt. Its hind legs lack the strength to do so.
Lack of GroomingThe cat cannot lift its legs in order to groom.
Missing the Litter BoxThe cat cannot get in or out of the box due to limited mobility.
Struggling to StandIt takes several attempts to gain enough strength for the cat’s legs to support its weight.
VerbalizationThe cat is in significant pain and discomfort.

What Causes Back Leg Stiffness in Cats?

The most common causes include:

  • Wear and tear on the leg joints
  • Arthritis
  • Infection or toxification
  • Diabetes
  • Organ failure
  • Neurological issues
  • Hip dysplasia
  • Pulled muscle
  • Spinal damage
  • Impact injury to the leg
  • Blood clots

Assess whether the problem has worsened gradually or happened immediately. These will normally result in completely different diagnoses.

Gradual Rear Leg Weakness in Cats

If your cat slowly loses control of its rear legs, the problem is likely age-related. Cats become less mobile as they grow older. The legs are subject to significant wear and tear over time. This will eventually take its toll.

A cat’s rear legs see a great deal of use when it’s younger. A big part of this comes from hunting. A cat needs to sate its hunting instincts to be happy. This also includes play within the home, according to The Compendium on Continuing Education for the Practising Veterinarian.

Most cat games include the hunting of a toy. Hunting involves stalking and pouncing. The latter activity places pressure on a cat’s back legs and spine. Cats propel themselves forward from their back legs. Over time, this will cause the cartilage and tissue to wear away.

There could also be a medical reason for your senior cat to lose control of its hind legs. Common examples include arthritis, hip dysplasia, diabetes or issues with the organs (including the brain.)

Arthritis

Arthritis is the most common reason for stiffness and lameness in cats. Almost all cats will experience some level of arthritis during their lifetime. This can start to manifest from the age of five.

Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis. This is the condition linked to old age and wear and tear. If your cat experiences a sudden onset of arthritis, it is likely related to an infection.

A cat’s bones are padded by collagen. This makes movement between bones smoother. This collagen starts to deteriorate over time. When this happens, your cat’s bones will start to grind together. This makes movement painful and difficult. Eventually, the joints can lock up completely.

The more your cat moves, the likelier she is to develop osteoarthritis. Any collision involving your cat’s limbs will cause future problems. Jumps from a height will have an impact. So, weight management is also critical as heavier cats place more pressure on their joints with every move.

Larger cats are at greater risk of spondylosis. This is the degradation of the spine, also known as spinal osteoarthritis. According to The Journal of Zoo and Wildlife Medicine, spondylosis is caused by a nerve in the spine becoming exposed, causing pain and inflammation.

Treating osteoarthritis is a combination of lifestyle changes and medication. The early you identify the problem, the more comfortable your cat will be. Scan and x-rays will identify the warning signs of the problem.

Hip Dysplasia

Hip dysplasia is rare in cats. It can occur, but it is usually a hereditary concern. Certain breeds of cat are likelier to experience hip dysplasia, most notably Persians and Maine Coons.

It is caused when a cat’s hip bones do not develop properly. The ball and socket of the hip do not connect. This will lead to difficulty moving and reduced movement in the rear legs.

Unlike most concerns about gradual rear leg degradation, hip dysplasia can strike at any age. An early warning sign is a lack of muscle mass.

Hip dysplasia is usually treated with anti-inflammatory medication and weight management techniques. Surgery will only be recommended if strictly necessary. This will take the form of a hip replacement.

cat back legs collapsing

Organ Failure

Aging internal organs inevitably affect their functionality. When organs are not fully operational, it can affect the rear legs. The most common reason for this problem is kidney failure.

According to The Journal of Small Animal Practice, the problem is prevalent in older cats. Kidney disease is often linked to other medical concerns. These include hyperthyroidism and cancer. Other critical symptoms of feline kidney disease include:

Kidney problems in cats unfold over four stages. The symptoms will change gradually as the condition worsens. Weak and wobbly rear legs typically manifest from Stage III onward:

Stage INo visible symptoms
Stage IIIncrease in drinking and urinating
Stage IIIReduced appetite, weight loss, lack of grooming, dehydration, vomiting, and muscle weakness
Stage IVMouth ulcers, refusal to eat or move, loss of vision

Diabetes

Diabetic cats will experience weakness in their hind legs as the disease develops due to diabetic neuropathy. When a cat becomes hyperglycaemic, she experiences glucose toxicity. This, in turn, damages myelin. Myelin is a fatty substance that protects the nerves around your cat’s legs.

Without the protection of myelin, your cat will find it difficult to walk. She may start to move on its tiptoes. It’s too painful to place any significant weight on its hind legs. Eventually, she will be reluctant to walk at all. This will not aid the weight issues connected to diabetes.

Neuropathy can right itself, given time. Once a cat’s diabetes is treated, its blood sugar will return to normal. After 6-10 weeks of steady regulation, the symptoms of neuropathy can be reversed.

Neurological Issues

Cats aged over fifteen years will often experience neurological issues. The most common of these is Feline Cognitive Disorder.

According to Veterinary Focus, one of the earliest symptoms is a weak and wobbly gait. It will almost look as though your cat is drunk. Other symptoms of watch out for include:

There is no cure but it can be managed if caught early. Medication can slow down the degradation of the brain. Keeping a cat’s mind active will also help. Give its brain a workout with puzzles rewarded by treats.

cats back legs aren't working properly

Sudden Onset Rear Leg Pain in Cats

Physical trauma could be minor or major. Minor examples include pulled muscles. The Journal of Morphology discusses the impact of pouncing on a cat’s hamstrings. If your cat is not appropriately limber, she could hurt itself making a sudden movement. A pulled muscle will heal itself.

Your cat may have experienced an impact injury. These include being stepped on, a bad fall, or a collision with a vehicle. Impact injuries can be serious, but not always obvious. Your cat may attempt to hide its pain.

It is also possible that your cat has slipped a disc in its back. This could be a result of falling from a height. A cat with a slipped disc will struggle to move at all, and likely meow near-constantly.

Some believe that cats can self-heal impact injuries. It is claimed that purring at a vibration of 25-50 hertz promotes bone healing. There is little bona fide science to back this up, though.

Never leave your cat to heal itself. A broken leg can become debilitating and cause a permanent issue.

Toxin Consumption

If toxins are consumed, it can destabilize a cat’s hind legs. They become weak and wobbly, making movement difficult. One explanation for this is sudden-onset kidney failure.

There are many ways that a cat could consume toxins. It may gain access to household cleaning products or paint. Certain human foods are also toxic to cats. These include grapes, alcohol, chocolate, caffeine, and raisins.

You should also be mindful of your cat’s hunting habits. If your cat hunts and eats wild rodents, its prey may have previously consumed rat poison.

If your cat has been poisoned, it needs medical attention. The toxins will be flushed from its body using intravenous fluids.

Never attempt to induce vomiting in your cat unless instructed to do so. If you take this action, use a fluid solution. Forcing a foreign object into your cat’s throat is dangerous.

Infections

If your cat develops sudden lameness or paralysis, investigate the possibility of infection. Your cat can get an infection from many sources:

  • Bites from fleas, ticks, or other parasites
  • Drinking from puddles and other dirty water sources
  • Bites from other animals

How these infections are treated depends on the problem. Often, a course of antibiotics will clear the infection up.

Blood Clots

If your cat has a blood clot, blood will not flow properly to its legs. This will prevent your cat from moving well. In turn, it can lead to further health complications. There are two primary forms of blood clots that affect cats:

  • Pelvic aortic clots, between the pelvis and legs
  • Saddle thrombosis, aka aortic thromboembolism. As the name suggests, this is a blood clot around the saddle of the cat

Left untreated, blood clots can lead to paralysis. Heart disease and cancerous growths are often connected to feline blood clots.

cats back legs shaking

How to Improve Your Cat’s Mobility

Treatment depends upon the cause of your cat’s leg issue. There are changes you can make to its environment to aid mobility. These include:

  • Use a low-sided litter tray for ease of access
  • Apply anti-inflammatory supplements to food
  • Encourage your cat to stay limber and exercise regularly
  • Manage your cat’s weight
  • Provide soft, padded bedding
  • Help your cat when climbing to higher ground

You can also massage a cat’s rear legs. This will relax it and improve mobility. You can do this at home. Follow these simple steps:

  1. Find a quiet room
  2. Relax your cat with petting
  3. Ensure your hands are warm
  4. Stroke your cat’s back gently
  5. Move to the upper thighs of the rear legs
  6. Rub and massage these legs

If your cat does not enjoy a massage, do not force the issue. You are trying to soothe your cat’s stiff legs and make it feel more relaxed.