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!

Pets in pain

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.

The International Veterinary Academy of Pain Management recommends watching your pet for these signs of pain:

Posture. Is your pet’s posture changing all of a sudden? If he starts arching his back, drooping his head or tucking in his abdomen more than usual, he many be compensating for the pain. If their neck hurts they may not eat well, finding it too painful to lower their head to the food bowl.

Temperament. Everybody has bad days, but if your sweet dog starts acting aggressively, avoiding social interaction or even hiding from people and other dogs, suspect pain of some kind. Similarly, if you notice your cat that usually spend time with the family suddenly passing the day under the bed or in a closet; another indictaor of pain or discomfort.

Vocalization. Although much more rare than other signs, some pets will actually cry out when they’re in pain. If your cat or dog voices a complaint, don’t wait. Take your pet to the vet.

Movement. Sometimes moving as little as possible helps pets manage their pain. So if you notice your cat or dog sitting or lying down most of the day, take note. 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.

Appetite. When chow-hounds and cats suddenly beg off at dinner-time, you know something’s wrong. Decreased or no appetite is a strong signal to get to the vet.

Grooming. Your kitty usually takes pride in her immaculate coat. But you’ve noticed she’s not as clean and well-groomed as usual. She could be restricting her movement to avoid triggering the pain.

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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. Under no circumstances should you ever give your pet over-the-counter pain medications made for people such as Ibuprofen or Tylenol, as both can cause serious harm. 

Rarely, some dogs will require surgery to alleviate the pain or neurologic symptoms. Thankfully, pet health insurance covers this, along with other hereditary and chronic 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.

Aug 3, 2010
Pet Health

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