8 Ways to Help Dogs with Back Pain

8 Ways to Help Dogs with Back Pain


By Helen Anne Travis


Back pain in dogs can be caused by any number of conditions: weight gain, an injury, anatomic abnormalities, degenerative conditions, arthritis, infection, or even cancer. Some breeds, including Dachshunds, are more likely to experience back pain, says Dr. Babette Gladstein, a holistic veterinarian in New York City. French Bulldogs and Pugs are also more prone to pain, says Dr. Michel Selmer, a certified traditional Chinese veterinary medicine practitioner at Advanced Animal Care Center in Huntington Station, New York.  All of these breeds, and others, suffer from a genetic condition called chondrodystrophy that makes it more likely that the discs between their spinal vertebrae will degenerate over time.


Subtle signs of back pain in dogs can include loss of appetite, panting, and taking longer than usual to get comfortable, Selmer says. “Any change in behavior can be an indication that there’s a problem.” Other symptoms include reluctance to exercise, stiffness, crying out when moving or being touched, unsteadiness when standing or walking, and an abnormal gait.


If you suspect your dog is experiencing back pain, limit your pet’s activity and call your veterinarian immediately. Here are some of the treatments and techniques he or she might recommend to get your dog back up to speed.


Traditional Pain Medications


Traditional prescription pain medications (e.g., nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories or opioids) are helpful in providing fast relief for back pain, Selmer says. But if used incorrectly, they can do more harm than good. The temporary sense of relief they provide may encourage the dog to be more active than she should be, which could further exacerbate whatever injury or condition is causing the pain, he says. Oftentimes veterinarians will combine a prescription for a pain reliever with a recommendation for rest or limited, controlled exercise (e.g., leash walking) to prevent such issues from developing. Leaving a pet’s pain untreated in an attempt to limit activity is cruel and unethical.


Some types of pain medications, like corticosteroids, can also stop or slow the very immune system reactions the body needs to heal, Gladstein says. That’s why she’s not a big proponent of using them on her patients. “You have a lot of other options available to you,” she says. Veterinarians may also prescribe muscle relaxants and nutritional supplements, or even recommend surgery if the dog’s back pain is severe enough.

Physical Therapy


Physical therapy helps relieve back pain by strengthening the parts of the body that are weak and stretching out the parts that are tight, Selmer says. It also helps speed up the body’s natural ability to heal and can help dogs and their owners avoid a potentially painful and expensive surgery.


Physical therapy can take many shapes and forms. Your veterinarian may develop a special exercise routine to address your dog’s specific needs or refer you to a specialist. Physical therapy may also include applying ice or heat to the affected area.


Gladstein says she often tells pet parents to place a heating pad on low power on the dog’s back for 10 minutes every hour to help relieve pain. That, combined with a few weeks of rest, is sometimes all that’s needed for the dog to heal from a mild back injury.



Hydrotherapy works very much like physical therapy, except the exercises are performed in water, Gladstein says. The buoyancy of the water reduces the pressure on muscles and joints, allowing them to regain strength and range of motion while minimizing strain. Hydrotherapy also helps reduce back pain by stimulating blood flow, which brings more oxygen to the affected area and boosts the body’s natural healing process, she says.

Laser Therapy


Laser therapy is another way of stimulating the body's natural ability to heal. When the light energy of a laser hits the damaged cells, it stimulates blood flow, again bringing more healing oxygen to the area and improving nerve and muscle function, Gladstein says.


Laser therapy can also help boost the body’s ability to heal by triggering the release of stem cells, Selmer says.



Ultrasound machines use sound waves to heal, Gladstein says. The waves can produce heat and/or increase blood flow to the area, which may reduce swelling and inflammation and relieve pain. Because the ultrasound waves work at a deeper level than laser therapy, they can be helpful in relieving back pain that originates in hard-to-reach places. 



According to Chinese medicine, pain is caused by stagnation in the body, Selmer says. Acupuncture is a 3,000-year-old traditional Chinese medicine healing practice that reduces pain by improving the flow of chi, or energy. Tiny needles are inserted into the skin at specific locations that connect to various organs and body systems via channels called meridians. This stimulates the energy of the body part, reducing stagnation, improving blood flow, and relieving pain.

Tui Na


Tui na is a blend of acupuncture and massage. But instead of just addressing specific acupuncture trigger points, tui na can involve massaging the whole channel to help relieve pain and stagnation, Selmer says.

Chinese Food and Herbal Therapy


Chinese food and herbal therapy works in a similar fashion to acupuncture, Selmer says. But instead of using just the body’s natural resources, we add food and ingredients to improve the flow of chi and reduce pain.


For example, in Chinese medicine, the condition of the kidneys is connected to the condition of the bones. If a dog’s back pain was caused by a spinal problem, Selmer says he would reduce pain by prescribing foods and herbs that strengthen the kidneys.


Turmeric is a popular ingredient on many Chinese food therapy menus, as it has anti-inflammatory properties and increases blood flow, Gladstein says.


But Selmer discourages pet parents from trusting “Dr. Google” and loading their dogs up on the pain-fighting herbs and foods they find online. A veterinarian specializing in herbal therapy relies on a more holistic approach that ensures you aren’t mixing herbs, foods, medications, and other therapies that could render each other inert or worse, have undesired side effects.

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