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Back problems in dogs

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Back problems in dogs are common in many breeds, especially the Dachshund, Pekingese, Shih Tzu, and Lhasa Apso. Back problems are relatively rare in cats.

Back pain in dogs can be caused by a variety of conditions ranging from cancer to an enlarged prostate, but the most common problem is what is informally called a "slipped disc." A dog's spine consists of a series of hollow bones called vertebrae that cover and protect the spinal cord. Gel-like cushions called discs separate the vertebrae and act as shock absorbers. Over time, the discs can become brittle, and the jelly-like core can bulge out. This material puts pressure on the spinal cord, causing inflammation of the nerves and pain.

The most common areas for a disc(s) to be affected include the lower back and the neck. Dogs with disc problems in the lower back often hold their back in an arched or rigid position. They may be reluctant to move and may cry out when the spine is flexed or even touched. The rear legs are usually weak and unstable. In severe cases, the dog may be unable to control its bladder. Dogs with disc problems in the neck are painful, stiff, and have muscle spasms in the neck. The weakness and instability associated with disc problems in the neck is often less severe than that associated with disc problems in the lower back.

Your veterinarian will perform a thorough physical examination that includes evaluation of the nervous system. X-rays of the spine may show narrowed disc spaces or signs of calcification along the spinal column. However, precisely locating the specific disc(s) involved may be impossible without more extensive and invasive testing.

Treatment usually includes anti-inflammatory medications to relieve pain and reduce the swelling of the spinal cord. Cage rest is often needed to allow the disc and spine to heal and to prevent further injury. Most dogs recover after several weeks of such conservative therapy, although the problem often recurs. If the problem is severe, long-term, or keeps recurring, surgery may be needed to remove old disc material, reduce pressure on the spine, and stabilize the vertebrae. In some cases, your veterinarian may refer your pet to a specialist or university teaching hospital for sophisticated diagnostic tests or surgery.

 

Q&A

What causes back problems in dogs?

The most common cause is a “slipped disc” that puts pressure on the spinal cord.  Other causes include cancer or an enlarged prostate.


What is a “slipped disc?”

This means that one of the cushioning discs between the vertebrae has bulged out or ruptured, putting pressure on the spinal cord.


Where are problems most likely to occur?

Slipped discs occur most commonly in the lower back and neck. 


How are back problems treated?

Treatment usually consists of cage rest and anti-inflammatory medications to relieve pain and reduce swelling while the spinal cord heals.  Severe or long-term problems may require surgery to remove old disc material, reduce pressure on the spine, and stabilize the vertebrae. 

Credit: Written and reviewed by John A. Bukowski, DVM, MPH, PhD and Susan E. Aiello, DVM, ELS
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