Have you ever had back pain? Perhaps you suffer from a chronic spinal condition and back pain is a part of your normal. Perhaps you have had an injury to your legs or arms, and remember that after a few days your back became painful, too. Perhaps you have suffered from a herniated disk, or you have arthritis in your facet joints.
Or, possibly, you are an athlete and have experienced the sudden pain of overexertion, leaving your back in agony.
Your back and spine are the central point of your entire body, which means anything that happens anywhere in your body is going to affect your back. The same applies to your best friend.
Dogs commonly suffer from back pain and, like us, can be really good at hiding their pain, especially when the pain has developed slowly over time. Unlike us, they can’t help themselves to feel better.
Why would my dog have back pain?
Back pain can be caused by a variety of conditions, and can be present at any life stage.
For example, older or senior dogs are predisposed to back pain because they are likely to have arthritis in their limbs or in the facet joints of the spine, especially the lumbar spine. They are also prone to a loss of muscle, which means that there is less supporting structure around the spinal column and the joints in the legs, which leads to instability and, eventually, pain.
Younger dogs might have back pain because of a muscle spasm caused by over exertion such as vigorous play or a hike uphill on rocky terrain, or from landing badly from a jump in or out of a car. Bad or incorrect conformation can also predispose our dogs to back pain. For example, dogs with very long backs, straight limb angulation, or deviations in their limb conformation may well experience back pain without showing any sign of it.
Any lameness will eventually lead to back pain as well, as the body accommodates the lameness by adjusting movement patterns.
Obesity is a major predisposing factor, with research in people showing there is a very strong correlation between obesity and chronic back pain. Clinical experience tells us the same is true for our canine patients.
At the end of the day, there are many things that can predispose your dog to back pain. The essential thing is to recognise the signs of back pain and know what to do about it!
How can I tell if my dog has back pain?
There are a few simple things that you can look out for in your dog’s day-to-day behaviour that will tell you if they are suffering from back pain.
1. A change in mobility
Have your dog’s activity levels changed over the last few weeks or years? Have you noticed that they are less active, slower to get up, not quite as ready to jump up onto the couch as they used to be? A change in activity levels, especially where your dog is slowing down, can be an indication that they are suffering from back pain.
2. A change in posture
In severe cases of back pain we might see dogs that are hunched up or have a hunched back. This looks similar to a person who has abdominal pain. Having a hunched posture is a dead giveaway that something is wrong. A more subtle version of a hunched posture could be a lowered head and neck as the dog is walking.
3. Muscle spasms
You might see the muscle spasm or quiver when you start to stroke your dog’s back, or when your dog stretches. Your dog might also cry out when you touch them.
4. Lack of control or coordination
You may notice that your dog seems to have less strength or control of his body. For example, he may get tired more quickly or stumble over his own feet.
5. A change in mood or personality
You might notice that your dog suddenly doesn’t like to be cuddled or picked up the way they used to, or they might become a bit grumpy and growly where they used to be friendly. Alternatively, your exuberant, excited, loving dog who would greet you with kisses in your face is all of a sudden more subdued and quieter when you arrive home.
Any indication of limping or dragging a leg can be a sign that your dog is in pain. Notice that this is the last thing I am listing, because all the other signs may come before any limping is apparent.
So what can you do about it?
First of all, because there are so many different causes of back pain and because some of these causes can be quite serious, it is very important to take your dog to the veterinarian for a full diagnosis.
Your veterinarian may recommend that your dog goes on to pain medication or supplements, that they undergo a weight loss programme, or that you consult a vetrehabber to help you prevent the pain from returning.
What will your Vetrehabber do?
Back pain is rarely a condition all on its own and is more often a symptom of something else wrong in your dog’s body. Through palpation, assessment and clinical reasoning skills, your Vetrehabber will be able to narrow down the origin of the back pain, help you to treat it appropriately through home and lifestyle modifications, and by addressing the pain immediately through the use of manual therapy, massage, stretching, strengthening, and enhancing the body’s natural ability to heal.
Working in this way will ensure that your dog stays pain free for as long as possible.
What your Vetrehabber wants you to know:
‘Learn to recognise your dog’s subtle pain signals, remember that your dog doesn’t vocalise his pain the way you do.’ Susan Yuen
‘It’s never just the back. Structural and functional dysfunctions are always found together and one cannot be addressed without the other’ Dr Michele Broadhurst
‘Prevent your dog from jumping in and out of the car, avoid ball throwing games, and make sure that your pet is at an ideal weight with their ribs visible. Put yourself in your dog’s shoes and think about what you feel like when your back is painful.’ Barbara Riner
‘Your dog wants to please you and will do anything you ask of them, even when it hurts! Adrenaline can mask pain in exciting situations, meaning your dog may look fantastic when they are playing with a friend, or when you arrive home, only to be stiff and painful a few minutes later after the excitement has worn off.’ Laura Moore
‘Back pain takes time to resolve well; be patient and trust the journey of healing.’ Jana Hager
‘When your dog is overweight, resolving back pain will be much harder and less successful.’ Carrie Townsend