Pets can have same back issues as humans

Published 10:03 am Wednesday, November 15, 2017

By Jeff Castle

Back problems in people have practically become an epidemic in the United States.

Most everyone knows somebody, either a friend, family member, co-worker or neighbor who has suffered some kind of back injury or chronic nagging back pain.

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Dogs often suffer from the same type of back problems as people do. It is difficult to say just how prevalent this condition is in dogs because they can’t tell us where or how much it hurts.

I believe back problems are very common in dogs and probably one of the most under diagnosed conditions causing discomfort in our four-legged family members.

Though dogs may suffer many different kinds of back problems, the most common condition is known as degenerative disc disease.

The anatomy of a dog’s back or spine is almost just like ours. The spine is made up of bones called vertebra that contain the spinal cord running through the center of the vertebra.

The vertebra protects the spinal cord which is one of the most important and sensitive organs in the body. The discs are rubber-like cushions located in between the vertebra and allow for movement up and down and sideways. The spinal cord lies just above the discs at the junction between the vertebras.

Injury to the discs can occur in a number of ways. Certainly, some degeneration of the discs comes from aging changes and chronic wear and tear. Most injuries are due to some type of traumatic event such as falling or jumping.

Jumping off the furniture is, without a doubt, the classic history of a dog showing signs of back pain. Just like in people, most injuries occur in the lower back or lumbar spine.

If one or more discs are injured, the severity of injury can vary greatly. Disc injuries can range from mild pain to permanent paralysis of the rear legs.

With minor injury, the disc may only swell slightly. However, with increased damage, the disc can swell upwards putting pressure on the spinal cord. This pressure on the spinal cord causes excruciating pain and loss of nerve function to the rear legs. If a disc ruptures, the material inside of the disc puts pressure on the spinal cord.

The spinal cord is encased inside of the bony vertebra and has nowhere to move away from the pressure. This can cause partial or complete paralysis of the rear legs by impinging on the nerves that control them.

Any dog could potentially injure their back, but certain breeds are definitely more prone to back problems. Just as you might guess, the breeds that have long backs such as dachshunds, bassett hounds, and Welsh corgis are much more susceptible to back problems.

The symptoms of back injuries can often be vague, which adds to the difficulty diagnosing the problem. Some dogs may yelp or cry out after jumping down from the furniture, but then seem fine for a day or two when they start to act strange.

They may stop eating, tuck their tail between their legs, become lethargic or seem restless. Dogs may be reluctant to go up or down steps or jump on the furniture. They will even sit and stare up at their favorite lounging spot as if to say “Will someone please help me up there?”

Other signs of back problems are shivering due to pain, walking “humped up” or swaying in their rear legs while walking. During examination, some dogs may have decreased reflexes in their back legs if they’re not obviously already paralyzed.

Some patients will show obvious pain by crying or trying to bite whenever they’re touched on their back. Others are very stoic or pain tolerant and may make it difficult to localize their pain.

X-rays can help diagnose the problem, though neither the disc nor the spinal cord will be visible on plain X-rays. Sometimes the space the disc occupies is noticeably narrow supporting a diagnosis of disc injury. Further diagnostics may be necessary, especially if your dog is paralyzed.

Treatment of back problems in dogs is very similar to the type of treatment for people. Furthermore, like people, back problems in dogs tend to become chronic nagging injuries whereas they will always be prone to injury after the initial episode.

Most patients with back pain and limited paralysis are usually treated with anti-inflammatory medicines, pain relievers and muscle relaxers. Restriction from exercise is just as important as medications.

Treatment is curtailed to the individual patient due to severity of pain and neurological status. For patients with severe pain and/or paralysis, surgery may be indicated. It may be the only good option for the patient to return to normalcy.

If surgery is to be performed, a myelogram may be performed while the dog is under anesthesia. This test involves injecting a special dye around the spinal cord and taking X-rays as the dye travels down the spinal column. If the dye stops, that means there is pressure on the spinal cord at that point. A computed tomography (CT) scan or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can be very beneficial, but are also very expensive.

If your dog shows any signs of back pain, contact your veterinarian to ensure your dog lives a long, healthy and happy life.

Jeff Castle is a veterinarian at Clark County Veterinary Clinic.