Pet Articles

Back Pain in Dogs and Cats

Back pain is something that many people can empathize with. Most everybody has suffered from back pain at some point in their lives, and while it can be pretty uncomfortable, it’s not usually considered a major health concern. You may be surprised to know then, that back pain in your pet just might be a serious and urgent problem.

The backs of humans and dogs are very similar, but there are a couple of important differences. Essentially, the spine consists of a spinal cord, which is a connection of neurons sending messages to and from the brain to the rest of the body. This cord is enclosed within a bony canal composed of numerous vertebrae. Small gelatinous discs sit in between each of these vertebrae and provide a sort of cushioning that allow the spine to bend and twist comfortably. These intervertebral discs are prone to injury and damage, both in dogs and humans. When a disc ruptures or extrudes from its regular position, it can impinge on the spinal cord causing serious pain and neurological deficits.

This is where species differences become extremely important. In humans, the spinal cord itself does not extend much beyond the middle of the back. Because of our upright posture, disc herniations occur most commonly in the lower back, and therefore has less of an effect on the spinal cord. Conversely, dogs’ spinal cords extend a great way down their backs, and their horizontal posture means that most injuries occur right in the middle. This means that when an intervertebral disc slips out of position, it usually pinches directly on nerve roots in the spinal cord. So while a person with a slipped disc might feel some shooting pain, a dog with the same problem can suffer from intense pain and even complete paralysis within a matter of hours.

As you can imagine, this is something that requires veterinary attention, and the sooner a dog receives treatment, the better the prognosis may be. It is essential then that all owners are aware of the signs of disc disease. Generally, pain will be the first thing you notice in a dog suffering from a slipped disc. If the injured disc is in the neck, the dog may be reluctant to turn his head or lower it to eat and drink. If the disc is in the middle of the spine, the dog may arch his back in pain. Also, as mentioned, in severe cases weakness or paralysis of the hind limbs may occur. If the nerves of the bladder and colon are injured as well, then the dog may show difficulties urinating and defecating.

In some cases these symptoms will occur suddenly, while others will develop more slowly over time. Either way, any of these signs are reason enough to seek veterinary care. These injuries are especially common in certain breeds of dogs, including the Dachshund, Beagle, Basset hound, and Bulldog. In fact, Dachshunds are about ten times more likely to suffer from this problem than all other breeds combined, and owners of these dogs should be especially alert for signs of back pain.

Treatment for intervertebral disc disease includes both medicinal and surgical options. The first step almost always includes the use of anti-inflammatory drugs. These will help to minimize the size of the herniated disc while reducing the inflammation around the spinal cord. Meanwhile, pain medication can be used to make your dog more comfortable. In serious cases, protruding disc material can be removed surgically, but the surgery must be performed shortly after the injury for it to be effective.

The prognosis from either form of treatment is variable. Many dogs will return to their normal selves, while others will never walk again. This fate is greatly dependent on the severity of the injury and how quickly and aggressively it is treated. In some cases, a dog treated for intervertebral disc disease will suffer from it a second time, but the chances are low. Prevention is difficult, as most injuries have no known cause. For dogs at high risk of disc herniation, it is a good idea to restrict them from jumping around too much and to keep their weight down as much as possible. Supplements like glucosamine and chondroitin are also available to help strengthen damaged discs.

If you are concerned about your dog’s back, please don’t hesitate to contact your veterinarian. While you might choose to accept and deal with your own back pain, your dog’s back pain is a whole different story, and one that your veterinarian will definitely want to hear about.

By Allison Norwich – writer

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