The Basics of Back Pain in Our Pets

By Dr. Laura Hady

The most common complaint to my physical rehabilitation practice for animals is chronic back pain. As a pet owner, it is heartbreaking to hear a pet yelp when it tries to jump on or off the couch, no longer wants to go on walks, or tenses back muscles when picked up. Since pets cannot point to the specific area of pain and since treatment is only as good as a diagnosis, here are some tips to help you and your veterinarian locate the source of the hurt.

  • Neck pain. Just like humans, dogs and cats have seven cervical vertebrae with spongy discs in between that act as shock absorbers. These discs can bulge or rupture, putting pressure on the spinal cord and on the associated nerve roots that extend into the muscles. Pets with neck pain can have a difficult time chewing dry kibble or treats. Pets may spend a longer time trying to lie down and may yelp when turning their head or jumping down from objects. Their front legs may even stumble or their toes can knuckle when stepping over objects. I cannot emphasize enough to contact your family veterinarian immediately and have your pet rest in a safe, semi-confined area until it can be seen and evaluated.
  • Mid-back pain. Pets with mid-back pain tend to arch their backs to shift more weight to the front legs. They may have difficulty jumping up or down or have tight abdominal and back muscles. The most common location of disc bulging and rupture in small breed dogs (think Dachshunds, poodles, and shih tzus) is at the last thoracic vertebrae and first lumbar vertebrae. As the pressure of the bulging disc increases on the spinal cord, your pet may get sores on the top of the back toes and either knuckle or drag the feet. Sometimes a pet may even be unable to walk or can lose feeling in the back legs. This is a medical emergency, so call your family veterinarian or take your pet to an emergency clinic right away.
  • Lower back pain. Lower back pain occurs in large breed dogs and cats more often than in smaller breed dogs. The spinal cord starts to taper around the fifth lumbar vertebrae and splits into several smaller nerves that extend into the muscles. Affected pets may have difficulty jumping or sitting, show decreased interest in walking or standing, have decreased tail wag, or may walk and drop stool instead of squatting. Please schedule a visit with your family veterinarian to help determine if the problem is caused by lower back pain versus hip or knee pain in your pet.

Treatment for back pain in your pet initially includes rest, pain medications like gabapentin to help quiet the nerve pain, and non-steroidal anti-inflammatories. Some animals benefit from a switch to steroids and muscle relaxers if the above medications do not work. Since the spine is a series of many joints, nutritional supplements like glucosamine/chondroitin and omega-3 fatty acids may help increase lubrication and decrease inflammation. Newer medications, such as the monoclonal antibody in Solensia, can block the pain-producing chemicals in your cat. Your veterinarian can decide which pain medication combination will work best.

Please remember that some pets will need diagnostics such as radiographs, blood work, and even magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to locate the problem in your pet. Surgery to remove the extruded disc material may be the best option to help your pet get back to moving again. For those pets that are managed conservatively, acupuncture, low-level laser therapy, massage, and physical rehabilitation (Your vet can make a referral.) can be beneficial long-term management tools that allow pets to be more comfortable in their daily activities.

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