By John Gilpatrick
A healthy back is critical to a dog’s ability to get around. All quadruped animals – those that walk on four legs – rely on their hind end for certain functions and their front end for others, but the back is where it all gets tied together. An injured back, then, affects a dog’s capacity for walking, playing, getting up, lying down and more.
Generally speaking, the best way to handle a canine back problem is to prevent one from occurring in the first place. That means maintaining a healthy diet and weight and an active lifestyle with plenty of exercise, says Whitney Phillips, an AVCA Certified Animal Chiropractor at Move Better Chiropractic in Portland, Oregon.
“Even if it is just going on walks, your dog’s body is meant to move,” Phillips says. “If it doesn’t, tissue will begin to deteriorate and lose flexibility. The saying, ‘If you don’t use it, you lose it’ – it’s true.”
But once an ailment develops, it must be treated in a more specific way. Continue reading for five of the most common back problems in dogs to learn if yours is at risk and what you can do to help relieve or prevent the pain.
This disease commonly affects older dogs because it’s often caused by the long-term degeneration of joint cartilage, which in turn causes chronic joint inflammation.
“This disease is slowly progressive and can range in severity,” says Julie Geisler, DVM and associate veterinarian at Boulevard Veterinary in Chicago. In addition to being common in older dogs, Geisler adds that dogs with a history of orthopedic surgery, disease or injury are also particularly susceptible to osteoarthritis as they age.
Obesity is another cause of the disease, Phillips says, because extra weight means added stress that pulls downward on the spine. Adipose tissue (fat) also secretes hormones that increase inflammation in joints and elsewhere the body. Because osteoarthritis isn’t a disease that gets cured, you’re best off preventing its occurrence by introducing healthy eating and exercise at an early age. You should also deal with trauma – hard falls, etc. – quickly to minimize any lasting damage to the dog’s body.
Regular chiropractic care, Geisler says, is one way to treat the symptoms of osteoarthritis. Heat and cold therapy, medications, nutritional supplements, dietary management, physical therapy, acupuncture, surgery and more may also be recommended by a veterinarian to treat the condition depending on the particulars of the case.
These are misalignments of the dog’s vertebrae that can interrupt nerve function. They’re caused by poor posture over time, as well as trauma in some cases, and problems with the nervous system can in turn cause miscommunication between the brain and the rest of the body. Owners might observe this as their dog being unusually clumsy.
It’s also a painful condition that veterinary chiropractors treat through spinal adjustments in conjunction with general veterinary practitioners.
“By adjusting the problematic segments of the spine, we free up waste products that build up when nerves can't function appropriately,” Geisler says. “This relieves inflammation and, therefore, pain.”
Also known as a slipped disc, this condition causes severe neck and back pain as well as hind limb weakness or paralysis, Geisler says. It occurs when a jelly-like disc between vertebrae bulges or bursts and pushes on nerves in and around the spinal cord.
Breeds with abnormally short legs – including Dachshunds, Beagles, and Basset Hounds – are genetically susceptible to this problem. Besides the dog’s general reaction to pain, owners might notice this condition if the dog is suddenly unable to use their back legs normally and possibly has difficulties urinating and defecating. Surgery is a treatment option for severe cases, but for mild to moderate cases, a combination of pain relief, anti-inflammatories, activity restriction, and appropriate physical therapy can be successful.
German Shepherds and other large breed dogs are predisposed to this condition, which also goes by the name cauda equine syndrome, says Dr. Jennifer Coates, veterinary advisor with petMD. It occurs when the nerves that exit the lumbosacral part of the spine in the lower back become compressed either due to instability in or a narrowing of the area. Compression of these nerves results in some combination of pain, hind end weakness or paralysis, abnormal reflexes in the hind end, urinary and fecal incontinence, abnormalities in how the tail is carried or used.
“Many dogs that I have treated for lumbosacral syndrome have been misdiagnosed as having hip dysplasia,” Coates says. A thorough physical and neurologic exam, often in combination with X-rays, is needed to make a proper diagnosis, and while lumbosacral syndrome can’t be cured, treatment with pain relievers, anti-inflammatories, activity restrictions, appropriate physical therapy, weight management, and sometimes surgery can help these dogs maintain a good quality of life.
More commonly known as strains, sprains, and pulled muscles, Geisler says these can occur during exercise, following trauma or simply by taking a bad step. The most common symptoms of a soft tissue injury to the back include pain and an unwillingness to perform normal activities.
Phillips says icing is a great way to treat acute injuries like these. Anti-inflammatory medications, physical therapy, and exercise modification are helpful too. Surgery may be necessary in severe cases. You might also want to take steps to make getting around the home easier for your injured dog. “If you have an animal that likes to jump up on the couch or bed, use a dog step stool to allow them easier access so they are not constantly absorbing the shock of jumping into their legs and back,” she says.
While these conditions are some of the most common causes of back problems in dogs, other disorders can be to blame as well such as spinal fractures or dislocations, tumors, infections, blocked blood vessels, and more. If you suspect that your dog is suffering from a back problem, make an appointment with your veterinarian. The sooner appropriate treatment is started the more likely it is that your dog will make a quick and full recovery.
Learn more about neck and back pain in dogs.