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Your Dog's Spine

Got a sore back? Me, too. Your dog can also have back problems (Cats are like "slinkies" and seldom have back problems).

A dog's back problem will be different from yours or mine because they walk on four legs with their spine in a vertical position while you walk on two with your spine in the horizontal position thus causing less stress.

If you think of a human as a stick figure, you will see that the part that bends the most is the lower lumbar spine. That's why the lower human lumbar endures the most stress and is most likely to have problems.

When you think of a dog as a stick figure, you'll see that the greatest bending occurs nearer the middle. Dogs tend to have problems just behind their thorax in the upper lumbar vertebrae.

What your Dog's Back is Made Of?

The back - dog's or human's - is made up of the spinal cord itself; the bones, called vertebrae; and the discs between the vertebrae. Each vertebra articulates with the one in front and in back with joints that have joint capsules and joint fluid like other joints in the body. The vertebra has a bulky, bony body below and a hole through it with a roof above. The spinal cord fits perfectly in the hole through the vertebra and is completely contained and protected in this body cavern with a bony roof to the outside of the body.

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Between each vertebra is a disc. The disc is like a jelly doughnut. The doughnut part is like a steel-belted tire and the jelly part is thick goo in the middle. The disc cushions the impact between vertebrae. The spinal cord passes over each disc space, and it is at the level of the disc that the spinal cord sends out nerve roots all over the body.

The one problem with this whole setup is that the doughnut is a little thinner and weaker just below the spinal cord. So, if too much pressure is put on the disc, it will rupture the disc goo right against the spinal cord. This disc material puts pressure on the cord that has no room because it has a bony roof toward the outside of the body. The rupture puts pressure on the cord, which gets inflamed and starts to swell. Nerve signals go crazy and the cord tissue starts to die.

Since a disc blow-out in dogs is usually farther up the spinal cord (upstream from where nerve fibers have been sent to the bladder, colon and muscles of the back legs), these dogs may be completely paralyzed almost instantly.

Humans and dogs: pain and paralysis.

When humans have a sudden back problem, the most common symptom is pain. With pets, it's often paralysis. The spine sends out nerve roots from the brain to the rest of the body. The farther down the spinal cord you go from the brain, the more nerve roots have been sent out. When humans develop a problem that puts pressure on the lower part of the spinal cord, the upper part has already sent out nerves to the lower part of the body: the bladder, the colon, and the leg muscles. So these parts are rarely affected and pain in the back is the most common symptom.

When dogs develop an acute spinal problem, it tends to be farther up the spinal cord - upstream from where the nerves branch out to the bladder, colon, and legs. So, the effect is that the dog often loses control of these body parts.

Anyone, who has lived with an older, stiff and disabled dog has experienced the heartbreak of arthritis. This slowly progressive disease starts with almost undetectable discomfort, and may progress to the point that the animal refuses to stand, walk outside for constitutionals, or even eat. Arthritis actually comes in different forms, with different causes, and can attack dogs regardless of breed or age.

Although causes may range from autoimmune rheumatoid arthritis to Lyme disease and primary cartilage degeneration in young dogs, by far the most common type is degenerative osteoarthritis. As our animals age, the bony joints begin to move less smoothly, and bony spurs may develop in the body's attempt to stabilize these "creaky" joints. Joint instability and bony proliferation cause pain when the animal moves.

Your pet may not be able to tell you if he or she is in pain due to arthritis. Many people expect their pets to cry, but old dogs and cats don't moan and complain about their aching joints the way humans do! You may only see slight trouble in getting up and down, climbing stairs or jumping up on furniture or into cars, soreness hours after exercise, or even a new grumpiness. This is one reason that yearly exams are so important for older dogs.

For some forms of arthritis, such as hip dysplasia, OCD, and rheumatoid arthritis, medical and surgical treatments work fairly well. For degenerative osteoarthritis, there is no cure. The animal is usually sentenced to a lifetime of anti-inflammatory agents, including aspirin, cartrophen (Rimadyl), etodolac (Etogesic), and eventually, cortisone-like drugs.

Who gets Back Problems and When?

Most dog patients develop a problem with ruptured discs when they are 4 to 6 years of age.

Female dogs have twice the likelihood of "slipping" a disc.

There are breed tendencies, too. Dachshunds and dachshund mixes are most likely to rupture a disc; poodles and poodle mixes come second; and beagles and beagle mixes are third.

You can reduce risks by supporting your dog's rear end if you lift it off the ground and by engaging it in exercise that strengthens back muscles without jumping. Swimming is a great exercise for dogs with spinal problems. Some ways to prevent back and joint problems is to keep your dog in tip top shape by keeping their weight down and have a daily exercise program. You never know it might keep you in shape too.

Back Problems in Older Dogs

Arthritis is common as dogs' age, and since spines have lots of joints, your older dog can develop spinal arthritis. Preventative care early in life can help. Most veterinarians will now recommend Glucosamine sulfate with the addition of Chondritan as a daily supplement to your dogs diet. MSM is also being recommended.

Also, some bulging of the discs and some new bone formation is common in older dogs. This new bone formation in senior dogs may squeeze on the nerve roots and cause strange sensations and loss of motion in the rear legs.

Old dog spinal disease is not the same as the ruptured disc of younger dogs. Old dogs usually need medical care and supportive joint care. Talk to your veterinarian about providing them with this care. Ask for a referral to a chiropractor. As like humans, dogs benefit from regular chiropractic care.


Many people will report their dog jumping and then yelping when the disc ruptures. It seems obvious that disc rupture is an emergency.

There are medical and surgical options for treating a ruptured disc. Drugs can reduce the swelling and stop the death of nerve cells. Surgical options include cutting a window in the bony roof above the spinal cord (lamenectomy) and/or making holes in the doughnut away from the spinal cord to let the goo ooze out away from the bony cavern that encases the cord.

Natural therapeutic treatments, however, can be extremely effective in diminishing the pain, slowing progression of the disease, and delaying or reducing the need for these drugs that have potentially severe side effects.

The first treatment is to switch all food to a very high quality, premium, preservative-free diet. A majority of painful dogs are greatly improved by diet change alone. The next step is to start glycosaminoglycan supplements, which fortify the cartilage in diseased joints and may help reduce pain. Glucosamine sulfate or Glucosamine hydrochloride alone may also be effective, and these are available at most health food stores. Antioxidant vitamins will probably be helpful for this pathologic inflammation, and homeopathic treatment is sometimes effective, as well.

Many pet owners wonder about herbal treatments. Popular herbs often recommended for arthritis (such as alfalfa, devil's claw and yucca) do not work well. On the other hand, the Ayurvedic herbs boswellia and curcumin as well as certain Chinese herbal combinations may be fairly effective. If herbal treatment is attempted, consult a veterinarian experienced in eastern herbal prescription systems.

Acupuncture can be very effective at reducing pain from arthritis. Acupuncture will usually involve 4-8 treatments initially, but is usually reduced to "tune-up" treatments over the long term. Many animals with arthritis (or other musculoskeletal diseases) compensate for chronic pain by "contorting" their spines, in an effort to relieve the pain. These animals can definitely benefit from occasional chiropractic adjustments sometimes coupled with massage.

Arthritis is manageable by a variety of natural and conventional treatments. It is especially important to slow progression of the disease by starting a good diet and glycosaminoglycan supplementation early, so if you suspect that your pet is "stiff," be sure to consult your veterinarian as soon as possible.


Chiropractic is a drugless method of health care. Most people associate chiropractic care only with back problems. This is a misconception.

Chiropractic deals with the nervous system that is housed inside the spinal column. The spinal cord carries all the nerves that go to every organ in the body. These nerves exit the spinal column through areas between vertebra, which are the individual spinal bones.

Chiropractic maintains that adequate nerve supply is vital to the proper functioning of the entire body. When the vertebral bones are misaligned, even very slightly, they affect the nerves and the flow of nervous energy. Chiropractors call these small misalignments "subluxations." A chiropractic adjustment is aimed at correcting the subluxation and restoring the proper functioning of the nervous system.

Chiropractic thus works to eliminate the cause of the problem and not just simply treat the symptoms. Temporary relief is like treating the smoke and ignoring the fire that is producing that smoke.

Symptoms that can Benefit from Chiropractors

  • Back, neck, leg, or tail pain
  • Injuries resulting from slips, falls or accidents
  • Performance or movement problems
  • Sudden changes in behavior or personality such as crabbiness, lethargy, just not him or herself
  • Holding tail down or off to one side
  • Pain syndromes
  • Changes in posture such as: hanging the head, or sitting off to one side
  • Uneven muscle development
  • Jaw or tmj problems, difficulty chewing
  • Weight loss due to pain
  • Head tilt
  • Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
  • Uneven pelvis or hips
  • Jumping problems or injuries
  • Shortening of a stride
  • Degenerative arthritis
  • Sciatic neuralgia
  • Sports injuries
  • Roaching topline
  • Sensitivity to touch
  • Pain associated with hip dysplasia
  • Rear end weakness
  • Difficulty going up or down stairs
  • Wobbler syndrome
  • General preventive and maintenance care
  • Some lameness syndromes
  • A look of apprehension or pain in the facial expression
  • Neck pain from sudden collar or choke chain pulls
  • Disc problems

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