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 Back Pain in Dogs: Causes, Symptoms, and When to See a Vet | BetterVet

Have you ever had back pain? If so you will know how much the twinging pain of a back injury reminds you of its presence in your daily routine. The structures of a dog’s back take part in every movement so when injured, it can affect your dog’s mobility and enjoyment in their day-to-day routine. The symptoms of dog back pain are:

  • Yelping or whimpering 
  • Reluctance to walk or move 
  • Paralysis in one or both hindlimbs 
  • Shaking or trembling 
  • Behavior changes e.g. hiding or trying to bite 
  • Swelling or pain when touching the back

What Are the Causes of Back Pain? 

Soft Tissue Injury

The back has many long, strong muscles supporting the spinal column. These muscles can be injured through exercise, trauma, or repetitive strain. The good news is that a soft tissue injury will usually recover with rest and pain killer medications.

 

Intervertebral Disk Disease 

This is a serious injury often seen in shorter dogs with long backs such as the Dachshund or Corgi. Intervertebral disk disease causes sudden onset paralysis of the back legs. This condition is considered a medical emergency. A CT or MRI scan will determine the cause of the injury. If an intervertebral disk has ruptured, surgery is needed to resolve the paralysis. If the disk is not ruptured but protruding (sticking out into the spinal cord causing the paralysis) medical therapy can be attempted. This involves rest, pain-relieving medications, and intensive nursing care in a veterinary hospital. If surgery is needed, the chance of a full recovery is around 50%, and if medical therapy is needed, the chance of recovery is around 80%. 

 

Osteoarthritis 

Osteoarthritis can affect any age dog or breed of dog although it is more commonly seen in older dogs over seven years old. The spine is constantly moving during a dog’s life and wear and tear on the joints is an inevitable end result. The spinal column is made up of many small joints. These connect together and form the anchor for all the other bones in the body. Over time a dog’s spine can weaken and develop osteoarthritis, which is painful and affects a dog’s ability to move freely. Osteoarthritis is diagnosed through X-rays and if diagnosed, requires lifelong management to keep your pet in good health.  

 

Cancer

Whilst this is a rare cause of back pain, it does occur. You may notice other signs like loss of appetite, weakness, or sudden weight loss. Cancer of the back in dogs is often severe and carries a poor chance of recovery. X-rays or advanced imaging will find the full extent of cancer, and if it has spread to other organs.  

 

Infection

Dogs can get infections in the intervertebral disks caused by bacteria or fungi. Large breed dogs are more commonly affected. Treatment is antibiotics or antifungal medication for long periods of time usually 6-12 months. 

 

Fractures 

Fractures cause significant pain or paralysis. Fractures can be caused by major trauma such as a road traffic accident. 

Another cause of a fracture is advanced cancer, which weakens the bone so much it breaks.  

The recovery from spinal fractures in dogs is poor. When the spine fractures, the movement can permanently damage the spinal cord causing paralysis to the rest of the body. 

 

Degenerative Myelopathy 

This condition is common in older, larger breeds such as the German Shepherd. The signs are scuffing of the toes in the back legs and a gradual loss of function in both back legs leading to paralysis. It is caused by osteoarthritis in the spinal column compressing on the nerves at the end of the spine. This affects nerve conduction and control over the back end. This is a crippling disease and currently, there is no cure. Treatment is mostly supportive including toe grips, using non-slip mats around the home, hydro, and physiotherapy. You may find you need to use a sling around the belly to help your dog walk and move around the home or go to the toilet. 

 

Frequently Asked Questions: 

I don’t want to use pills to treat my dog, are there any alternative therapies that can help my dog with back pain? 

Yes! There are many non-invasive, effective ways to treat back pain depending on the cause. Visit a veterinarian and ask for advice on which of the following may be suitable for your pet’s recovery: 

  • Hydrotherapy 
  • Physiotherapy 
  • Laser therapy 
  • Ultrasound therapy
  • Acupuncture 

How can I safely move a dog with back pain? 

A dog that is unable to stand up or move could have serious back issues such as a broken spine. It’s essential to minimize movement to reduce the chance of spinal cord damage. If available, placing your dog on a firm flat moveable surface such as a wooden board or firm sheet of plastic can reduce the chance of spinal cord damage through inadvertent movement. With two people supporting both ends of the dog lift gently onto the board and always have someone sitting with the dog to restrict movement whilst on the board. Get your veterinarian to come to the car with a stretcher rather than lift them into the clinic.  

 

Are there side effects with pain relief medication? 

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications can have side effects such as vomiting and diarrhea and on rare occasions, kidney damage. To reduce the chance of side effects of vomiting and diarrhea give the tablets with a meal. Non-steroidal medication should not be given to pets who already have kidney disease, so be sure your vet is aware of any pre-existing conditions. If your pet is on long-term medication, your veterinarian will recommend regular blood and urine tests to track kidney and liver health. If there are signs of changes found on testing, other medications can be given. 

There are many causes of back pain, and a lot of these are quite serious in nature. Treatment options for back pain are surprisingly varied, suggesting a combination of therapies is the most successful way to treat back pain once identified.

 

How do I prevent back pain in my dog?

The key to back pain prevention is making sure that your dog stays at a healthy weight and gets plenty of (safe) exercise! If you find that your dog is in pain, identifying and treating it early is crucial. For more detailed information, check out our top tips to prevent back pain in dogs.