Pet Talk: Back pain isn’t just for people, but pets, too |

Pet Talk: Back pain isn’t just for people, but pets, too

Even athletic dogs have back pain, so watch for signs like a low-hanging head or a change in gait.
Special to the Daily

“Can I be next?”

Animal owners often rhetorically ask this while they watch their animals relaxing into acupuncture, chiropractic and laser treatment sessions. Many people can relate to the desperately-needed feeling of relief from back pain. It is estimated that 80 percent of adults suffer from back pain at some point in their lives. This pain can range from acute and debilitating to chronic and dull.

Our animal friends are no different. With careful palpation, I identify some degree of back or neck pain in well over half of the fit, athletic dogs and horses I see. It is rare to find a dog or horse on the older end of the age spectrum with no back pain. Aging cats also commonly have tenderness in their backs.

We all love our animals and don’t want them to be in pain. Beyond the pain, there are potentially devastating compensatory effects of back pain. Studies have shown that where back pain is present, muscle atrophy can begin as soon as 72 hours after the pain begins. This atrophy is of the deep stabilizing muscle between the vertebrae called the multifidus. Interestingly, atrophy is present not only at the vertebral level where pain is identified, the atrophy can span three vertebral segments up and down the spine.

Why does this matter? When stabilization is reduced, with each contraction of the larger muscle groups, the affected vertebral segments become hypermobile. They move too much. Hypermobility leads to subsequent inflammation, degeneration, disc disease, arthritis and spinal stenosis. Stenosis is a narrowing of the spinal canal which can impinge on the spinal cord causing pain, weakness and loss of bladder and bowel control.

The reasons for back pain in our animals are myriad. Sometimes the pain is quite obvious as in the case of trauma or acute disc disease. These cases intuitively require a visit to the veterinarian for examination and diagnostics. Frequently, however, back and neck pain is far more subtle and easy to overlook or ignore.

Here are some signs that may indicate back pain:

Changes in posture including low head carriage, swayback or arched back.

Changes in hair coat along the spine — an abrupt change to fluffy, curly or flattened fur.

Changes in gait.

Tenderness to gentle, but directed, palpation of the muscles along the spine.

Muscle fasciculations or spasms along the back during palpation.

Changes in back muscle tone from soft and forgiving to firm and restricted.

The good news is this disastrous compensatory cascade can be stopped with three steps:

1. Early identification of back pain by vigilant owners or veterinarians specifically trained in palpation techniques. Diagnostic imaging may also be helpful.

2. Early, integrative treatment of back pain utilizing appropriate medications, acupuncture, chiropractic, soft tissue work and laser therapy.

3. Implementation of specific, targeted rehabilitation exercises to strengthen the multifidus. Even after the pain is gone, the multifidus will not increase in size or strength without these exercises.

Elizabeth Dooher, MS, DVM, of Integrative C.A.R.E. Ltd., is a mobile veterinarian specializing in chiropractic, acupuncture, rehabilitation and laser therapy. She can be reached at and 970-331-9625.

Support Local Journalism