Dog Back Pain: Causes, Diagnosis, Treatment and Prevention

Back pain is very common in humans, but the problem also affects animals as well, including your canine companion. When your dog just doesn’t seem “right”, it can be quite stressful trying to determine what the exact issue is.

The dog could seem reluctant to go on its daily walk or don’t want to go up the stairs. Perhaps it isn’t all that eager to have dinner, which is unusual. Or maybe it just looks somewhat uncomfortable, showing that it isn’t feeling okay. When you start noticing these things in your animals, consider them as signs of pain.

When pain is experienced as a secondary sign to a known trauma, such as a cut or broken bone, diagnosing it is easy. But spinal pain is a fairly common issue in dogs, and it’s not often associated with a specific traumatic event. For this reason, you may find it much harder to recognize dog back pain.

In this guide, we’ve explained all you need to know about identifying dog back problems, what causes these issues, how they can be treated and prevented.

Causes of Dog Back Pain

Spinal anatomy can be quite complicated, and it’s crucial to know some basics in order to understand the causes of back pain in dogs. There are similarities in the spine of dogs and humans. Dog’s spine comprises a series of small bones, which are known as vertebrae, running from the base of its skull and ending at its tail.

In between each bony vertebra, there are soft cushions — also called intervertebral discs. These are small, circular gel-filled cushions, whose primary purpose is to protect the spinal cord of the dog from damage. These discs achieve this by absorbing shocks and impacts and allowing the back, neck, and tail of dogs to bend and twist.

In the central part of each disc, there is a squishy material. If the outer part of the intervertebral disc suffers damage, the squishy material could leak, which leads to painful pressure on the dog’s spinal cord and associated nerves.

Several health issues can cause dog back pain, with intervertebral disc disease being the most common. Generally, lower back pain in dogs can be caused by the following conditions:

  • Intervertebral disc disease
  • Dislocation and fractures
  • Trauma
  • Soft tissue injuries
  • Infected discs
  • Infection in the spine
  • Inflammation of the spine
  • Cancer
  • Tumors

Diagnosing Back Pain in Dogs

The following are signs of back pains in dogs:

  • Slowness while getting up
  • Reluctance to be picked up
  • Lower physical activity
  • Lower appetite
  • Rear leg paralysis or weakness
  • Urinary or fecal incontinence
  • Hunched and stiff back
  • Uncoordinated walking
  • Biting or growling when petted
  • Crying when moved or touched

Back pain doesn’t just make dogs uncomfortable. It can also lead to permanent neurologic damage if it isn’t promptly diagnosed and treated by a vet.

Thus, if you notice any signs of dog back problems, consider scheduling an appointment with your vet immediately. The vet will first carry out thorough physical and neurologic examinations to know the specific area the pain is coming from and conduct a test for some neurologic reflexes.

Also, they will perform spinal x-rays. These might not reveal the actual cause of the dog back pain, though.

The vet could refer you to a specialist to conduct advanced imaging techniques, like MRI and CT. These can diagnose the pain more accurately.

Once neck pain has been identified, the vet will evaluate the dog further to know if there are any neurological deficits. Several dogs do experience pain without any neurological deficits present. As the problem progresses, the first deficit to be noticed is usually a wobbly gait or weakness, which most commonly affects the hind limbs.

Then, your vet will watch your dog walk so they can determine the way he carries its head, the way it moves its legs, and if its scuffs or drags any foot. After identifying the pain, more diagnostics could be recommended for diagnosing the cause.

It can be difficult to recognize back pain in dogs, even for veterinarians sometimes. But prompt diagnosis and treatment aid relief of pain and, in many cases, prevention of the progression of the disease to a more severe or irreversible condition.

Treatment of Dog Back Pain

Treatment options for dog back problems can be broadly categorized into two groups: Medical (non-surgical) and Surgical. It isn’t uncommon for dogs to be given the two kinds of treatment to offer them relief from their back pains.

What determines the exact treatment plan is the severity of the pain and the dog’s neurologic status, which are both handled by a veterinarian.

For mild back pain, medical treatment is the best, and the options available are any of these:

  • Strict cage rest
  • Back brace
  • Medication for reducing pain and inflammation
  • Weight loss for overweight dogs
  • Physical rehabilitation
  • Complementary therapies like acupuncture and cold laser therapy

By managing your dog’s back pain using medications for treating nerve pain, such as gabapentin, or NSAIDs (which are also referred to as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), like Aspirin or Rimadyl, your pet can experience consistent relief. Don’t ever use two NSAIDs at once for your dog because that might bring about severe or potentially life-threatening effects.

In addition to this, if you replace a particular NSAID with another, ensure that you observe the wash-out period of roughly three days to enable the first medication to leave the dog’s system.

You can ask your vet about any drugs that could be administered to your dog to alleviate its discomfort. You can also inquire about alternative therapies, such as physical therapy, acupuncture, laser therapy, or localized hot and cold therapy. Before starting any new medication, always consult your veterinarian.

While these tips can be of help in providing relief for your dog’s back pain, ensure that you check with your vet before you try something new because certain conditions that cause back pain in dogs could need specific treatment protocols.

Surgery could be required if medical therapy isn’t effective or if the neurologic status of the dog grows worse rapidly (showing symptoms such as incoordination and paralysis). This may also be required when your dog is paralyzed or uncoordinated during your first visit to the vet.

The objective of surgery — which should be carried out by a board-certified veterinary surgeon — is to bring relief to the pressure in the spinal cord by getting rid of the ruptured disc material.

It’s important to note that surgery won’t relieve inflammation or reverse permanent spinal cord damage. Dogs that require surgery to ease their back pain will be given medical treatment after surgery.

This is because post-surgical medical treatment procedure helps in completing the healing process and restoring the normal functioning of the body.

Dog back problems can occur for several reasons. Luckily, there are non-surgical and surgical treatment options for providing pain relief for dogs experiencing back pain. If your furry buddy is showing signs of back pain, reach out to your vet promptly to provide the dog with the best chance of getting pain relief.

Prevention of Dog Back Pain

Prevention, as people say, is better than cure — even for dogs. Though there is no assurance that back problems in dogs can be avoided, you can take certain steps to reduce the likelihood of it occurring. Here are some ways to prevent back pain in dogs:

Watch the dog’s weight

When your dog’s body weight is excessive, this puts much strain on its spine and, consequently, the intervertebral discs. Sadly, it actually doesn’t take much additional weight for back problems to start developing. So, weight management is among the most crucial means of looking after a dog’s back.

If you don’t know how much your dog should be eating, you can consult your veterinarian, who can give an accurate recommendation according to the age and breed of the dog.

Exercising 

Exercising is a great way to ensure a dog doesn’t become overweight. Also, it can help in strengthening the back muscles, allowing them to do a better job of supporting the spine. Consequently, this will reduce pressure on this part of its body and lower its tendency to suffer from back pain or injury.

Lift carefully

Some pet owners like carrying their dogs. If you lift your dog, consider minimizing the risk of causing back problems by ensuring you put one hand under its abdomen and the other under its chest, with the spine kept straight.

Avoid tug-of-war games

A lot of dog owners don’t know that playing tug-of-war games with dogs strains the dogs’ back. The dogs won’t only pull the toy towards themselves but will also twist and turn excitedly as they leap about. This could make them injure their back. Instead of tug-of-war games, you can play fetching games that put less strain on the spine.

Make use of a harness instead of a collar

Collars are great as they help dogs control their neck easily. However, these sudden movements could injure the vertebrae (those small bones) in their neck and upper back. This could subsequently cause back pain and other related issues.

Strongly discourage jumping

While a pet like dogs can be extremely excitable, one of the worst actions that can hurt their back is jumping. For this reason, discourage your dog from jumping off and on soft or hard surfaces. If it jumps up to catch your attention on returning home, you should get down to its level as much as you can so the dog doesn’t have to stretch to touch you.

Some Common Dog Back Problems

While dogs tend to experience less pressure on their spine compared with humans, dogs aren’t immune to back problems because they neither bend or twist or walk upright like humans. A variety of back-related issues could affect a dog. Let’s look at some of them:

Herniated Disc

One of the most common back problems affecting dogs, a herniated disc occurs when the soft gel within the dog’s intervertebral discs gets hard and becomes less able to absorb stress and impact. Once this occurs, any pressure put on the disc could make it rupture. And it will protrude out in the dog’s spinal canal and touch some nerves. It will apply pressure on its spinal cord too. These two events can result in the dog developing different symptoms, such as back pain, unusual sensations like tingling or numbness in the limbs that are closest to herniated area, and an inability to make proper use of his limb.

Subluxation or Partial Spine Dislocation

Just like we have in humans, subluxations are misalignments in a dog’s spine, which is capable of interrupting nerve function. They typically happen due to trauma or excessive exercise.

Disorders of the Meninges

What are meninges? These are the membranes covering the brain and spine. If they get inflamed or infected, it can cause stiffness or soreness in a dog’s spine. If your dog appears to be having back pain, consider scheduling an appointment with your veterinarian to know what caused the discomfort.

Osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis is a progressive condition caused by a long-term degeneration of the back’s joint cartilage. It’s another common condition that can result in back pain.

Wrapping up

While back pain is very common in humans, the problem also affects dogs as well. Dog back pain can be caused by intervertebral disc disease, dislocation and fractures, trauma, soft tissue injuries, and other conditions.

Recognizing back pain in dogs can be a difficult exercise, even for vets sometimes. Symptoms of this problem include slowness while getting up, reluctance to be lifted, lower physical activity, lower appetite, rear leg paralysis or weakness, and others.

While dog back problems can occur for several reasons, luckily, there are non-surgical and surgical treatment options to give pain relief to your dog. One of the best ways to ensure the general wellbeing of your dog is by taking steps to prevent dog back problems. To avoid back pain in your dog, consider using the preventive tips above.

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