I’m sure that most of us have experienced a stiff neck or back pain at some point in our adult lives. ( I know I have!) If you have had neck or back pain before, you’re familiar with the shooting pain that accompanies a move in the wrong direction. Sometimes the pain is so great, it can even make us yelp!
Would you be surprised to know that our pets, dogs in particular, can suffer from neck and back pain as well? I see these patients in my office with some regularity, and their presenting complaint is often—you guessed it –yelping in pain.
Neck and back pain in dogs is most commonly caused by intervertebral disc disease, a long name for what most people would call a slipped or bulging disc. The pain is a result of disc material (which normally acts as a shock absorber between the vertebrae of the spine) degenerating and then rupturing or bulging into the sensitive, nerve filled spinal cord. (Ouch!) There are other causes of neck and back pain, including: trauma, infections and tumors. But disc disease is far and away the most likely suspect.
Certain breeds are at higher risk too. Any dog with a long back and short legs has an anatomy that is susceptible to back pain. Unfortunately, as adorable as they are, Dachshunds, Shih Tzus, and Lhasa Apsos are among breeds at higher risk. However, any dog can certainly experience back pain at some point in its life.
What symptoms would your dog have if he or she was suffering from neck or back pain? In my experience, the majority of dogs will have a history of crying out in pain for no discernable reason. Owners will tell me that picking their dog up or just petting him on the head will provoke a heart wrenching shriek of pain. By the time I see them in the office, dog and owner alike are a jangle of frightened nerves. They are usually reluctant to move around too much and may seem lethargic. If their neck hurts they may not eat well, finding it too painful to lower their head to the food bowl. More severe cases of neck pain may cause a dog to limp on a forelimb as pain shoots from their neck to their leg. Less frequently, but more seriously, affected dogs can show neurologic signs with weakness or paralysis.
So if you suspect that your dog is suffering from neck or back pain, what should you do? Take him to your veterinarian as soon as possible. Most cases can be managed with anti-inflammatories and strictly enforced rest. Rarely, some dogs will require surgery to alleviate the pain or neurologic symptoms. Thankfully, Petplan pet insurance covers this, along with all other hereditary and congenital conditions.
You can take some proactive steps to help prevent neck and back pain. The number one thing a pet owner can do, especially in an "at risk" breed, is to make sure that dog stays lean and fit – no fat bellies to put extra stress on a long back. You can’t stop disc disease from occurring – that is likely decided by genetics - but you can help to minimize the external strains on your dog’s back.