6 Causes of Back Pain in Dogs

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6 Causes of Back Pain in Dogs

Have you ever experienced back pain? The answer is almost certainly yes. Back pain is incredibly common in people. But this condition can be difficult to diagnose in pets, and we don’t know how common it is in dogs. 

One thing we do know? It’s almost certainly more common than we think, because dogs hide their symptoms so well! 

Dog Back Pain Symptoms: Signs of Trouble

There are lots of different causes of canine back pain. Every dog is different, so symptoms may not be the same from dog to dog. But here are some signs that might indicate back pain:

Stiffness. Some dogs might appear more stiff than usual. 

Limping. If your dog is limping, it’s possible that your dog has back pain. However, limping can be attributed to other problems like a pulled muscle, sprain, or paw problems, too. 

A change in gait. Is your dog walking differently—such as a sway in the walk or a short stride? This could be a signal of back problems. A change in gait is also common in pets with arthritis. 

Holding their head low. Dogs with upper back pain and neck pain may also hold their head low and stiff and appear depressed. 

Mood and behavior changes. You may even find that your dog becomes grumpy, or avoids contact with you or other pets. This could signal your dog is in pain. 

There are many different signs of back pain in dogs. Some dogs will cry out, but others may be more stoic, and back pain signs can be easily missed.

Of course, there are some types of back problems in dogs that are very easy to spot. A slipped disk usually occurs with a jolt—such as jumping off the sofa or during play. These dogs will cry out and freeze to instinctively protect their backs. They may walk away very stiffly, or may be weak or unable to walk at all if there is nerve damage. 

This sort of sudden back pain is always an emergency and should be seen as soon as possible by a vet.

Chronic, ongoing back pain is trickier to diagnose. Dogs don’t know that pain relief exists, so they don’t know that they should tell us they’re sore. As already mentioned, dogs with chronic back pain may be a little stiff, or have changed their behavior to protect themselves, such as avoiding jumping or the stairs. They may lie down differently, get up differently, or eat their food more slowly. 

Dogs with lower back pain may also struggle to go to the bathroom properly, as they find it hard to get into the correct position. 

Causes of Back Pain in Dogs

dog in pain

There are lots of causes of back pain in dogs—from the very serious to the common, minor pains associated with old age. The following conditions can cause back pain in dogs:

Spinal Arthritis 

Spinal arthritis is fairly common in dogs, but it’s hard to determine how painful this is. The spine has hundreds of tiny joints that—when affected with arthritis—cause grating pain when a dog moves. 

It’s important to remember that arthritis doesn’t just affect older dogs—Boxers and German Shepherds often get spinal arthritis at a younger age, and dogs that have had injuries of the back are also more likely to be affected by spinal arthritis. 

Spondylitits

Spondylitis is another disease that causes back pain. In this case, a bacterial infection causes inflammation in the vertebrae. This condition is very painful for dogs. Dogs diagnosed with spondylitits usually respond well to antibiotics, but are likely to go on to have spinal arthritis in many cases.

IVDD

Intervertebral Disc Disease (IVDD) is a very serious and painful disease of the spine. In IVDD, discs can prolapse (known as a slipped disc) or protrude. Either way they impinge on the spinal cord, causing severe pain and even paralysis of the legs in some cases. The amount of damage depends on the location and severity of the prolapse. IVDD is more common in some breeds, such as Dachshunds. 

Spinal Trauma

Spinal fractures are not common, but can occur in dogs who are fed a poor diet or can be due to injury from a car accident or a tumble. Dogs can also have neck pain and even fractures related to poor use of dog collars during training.

Pulled Muscles, Strains, and Sprains

Muscle and soft tissue injuries are also possible. Just as your back may be sore after exercise, your dog’s might be too. This is especially true of sport dogs such as agility dogs, who do a lot of exercise, twisting and turning in the air. If your dog has pulled a muscle in their back, they may walk stiffly or prefer not to walk at all. They may also cry out when attempting to run or jump. Often these dogs will heal without incident, sometimes just needing some time to rest.

Meningitis

Lastly, meningitis is an important cause of back pain in dogs. The meninges is a layer that covers the brain and spinal cord, and in meningitis it becomes inflamed. Unlike humans, who have meningitis caused by bacteria, dogs usually have a sterile meningitis—which causes their immune system to flare up. This causes severe spinal pain, but it doesn’t appear to be bacterial or fungal in nature. 

Meningitis usually affects young dogs. They’re usually depressed, have a lack of appetite, and they may vomit. But, most importantly, they are unable to move their necks much, and will often yelp if it’s attempted. These dogs can be treated by a veterinarian and will often make a full recovery over time.

Back Pain Treatment for Dogs

Jack Russell resting

The treatment for back pain in dogs depends on the cause of the pain. Treatment regimens may consist of one or a combination of the following:

Pain Medications

Where there is pain, pain medications are essential and it’s very likely that your dog will be put on pain medications such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications. 

Rest 

Regardless of exactly what is going on with your dog’s back, rest is usually also prescribed. This is to prevent further damage to the spine. Your veterinarian will tell you the level of rest expected, but crate rest is usually recommended. This means your dog needs to stay in their crate at all times, except for bathroom breaks. 

Surgery

For spinal fractures and certain types of IVDD, dog spine surgery might be necessary. This type of surgery is extremely sensitive and should only be carried out by somebody with specialized qualifications and experience. It is likely that you’ll have to travel to a referral center for this sort of treatment. Spinal surgery is often expensive due to the specialist equipment necessary, but it may be the only way for dogs to walk after trauma.

Steroids

For meningitis, steroids are the mainstay of treatment. This is a long treatment, usually several months of twice-daily medications, and the dose must be very carefully and slowly reduced over time to prevent the dog from relapsing. The good news is that steroid therapy is usually very cheap, and—assuming your pet will eat the tiny tablets—is easy to give.

Acupuncture 

Acupuncture is becoming recognized as a legitimate and evidence-based treatment for some conditions, and appears to be very helpful for back pain in dogs. This type of treatment is not suitable for dogs with acute back pain caused by an injury, but may be more helpful for dogs with chronic and ongoing back problems related to spinal arthritis or a pulled muscle.

How to Help Your Dog’s Back Pain at Home

Woman giving dog supplement

If your dog is experiencing back pain, there are some practices you can put in place at home to help your pup rest, recover, and find some relief. 

Weight Loss

A lot of dogs that end up with back pain are overweight. Helping your dog to lose weight is an important part of reducing pressure on their backs. It can be very hard to do, especially if your dog has also been prescribed rest, but is essential for a good recovery. Speak with your veterinarian about a weight loss program for your dog.

CBD Products

While CBD products for pets are relatively new and research is still being done, studies show that cannabidiol can reduce pain in dogs caused by arthritis. If you are interested in exploring CBD as a natural option for pain relief, learn how to start a conversation with your veterinarian about your choices and what to look for in products. 

Joint Supplements

Starting your dog on joint supplements may help to ensure they get the correct nutrients for joint repair. However, you should discuss this with your vet, as some supplements may interact with other medications your dog is on. 

Rest and Comfort

It’s important that your dog rests. Even if your veterinarian doesn’t prescribe crate rest, you need to be sensible about allowing them to do things that can cause further injury, such as jumping out of the car or going up and down the stairs. Providing a car ramp, stair ramp, or steps onto the sofa can help them to live their best life while protecting their back. 

You should also think about your pet’s bed—an orthopedic mattress can provide needed support. You should also consider finding a suitable harness for your dog that doesn’t put pressure on the affected areas. Your veterinarian can help you with this.

How to Prevent Dog Back Injuries

Of course, preventing back injuries from happening in the first place and optimizing your pet’s back health should be a priority. Pay close attention to the following areas of your dog’s lifestyle to help prevent dog back pain. 

Diet

It’s important to feed your dog a nutritionally balanced, complete diet formulated for their size and lifestage. Home-cooked diets and other diets that are not properly balanced can cause bones and joints to not grow properly, and too much or too little calcium can cause bone problems. This is especially true when dogs are growing.

Weight

With excess weight comes extra pressure on the spine and back. Keeping your dog fit and at the ideal weight for their size, age, and breed is essential. Get your dog’s Body Condition Score regularly checked at your veterinary practice to ensure they’re not carrying excess fat.

Exercise

Getting your pet the right amount of exercise can be difficult, but keeping your dog fit is important. Low-intensity exercise such as hydrotherapy is a great way to ensure your dog is in tip-top condition without putting extra pressure through aging or already damaged spinal joints.

Joanna Woodnutt, BVM