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Neck and Back Pain in Dogs

By: Dr. Bari Spielman

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Neck or back pain is discomfort along the spine. This pain may be mild and associated with subtle clinical signs, such as reluctance to jump or climb stairs. For some animals, the pain may be excruciating and associated with crying or moaning, reluctance to move, decreased appetite and malaise.

Back pain must be differentiated from diffuse pain arising in nearby tissues. When pain is present in the abdominal organs and the abdominal muscles, it may be difficult to distinguish such pain from actual back pain. Even a thorough examination by your veterinarian may not be able to always localize the pain, particularly because animals cannot describe their pain or identify for us where it is at its worst.

Causes

There are a variety of causes of neck and back pain and they include muscle diseases, vertebral disorders, nerve problems, etc. Examples include the following:

  • Epaxial muscle diseases. With these diseases, pain arises within the muscles along the back or neck. Such diseases include soft tissue injuries, bite wounds, inflammation, and infection.
  • Vertebral disk disorders. The most common vertebral disorder in dogs is degeneration of the discs between the vertebrae of the spine. This is known an intervertebral disk disease. Infection of the disks may also occur. Some dogs are also prone to instability of portions of the spine.
  • Spinal trauma. Fractures and dislocations of the spine may result in severe pain.
  • Cancer. Cancer of the vertebrae, nerve roots, or soft tissues around the spine may cause back or neck pain.
  • Disorders of the meninges. The meninges are membranes that cover the brain and the spine. Inflammation or infection of the meninges may cause stiffness and pain along the neck and back.
  • Referred pain. Referred pain is pain that arises in one organ, but is felt in an adjacent area. An example of referred pain is kidney pain that is felt along the back. Infection of the kidneys, especially with bacteria such as leptospirosis may cause clinical signs of back pain rather than signs of kidney disease.

    What to Watch For

  • A changes in your pet's posture
  • Arched back
  • Guarded stance
  • Stiffness of the neck
  • Reluctance to turn or raise the head
  • Pain upon palpation (feeling or manipulation) of the neck or back
  • Obvious deformities of the spine
  • Bruising, puncture wounds, or lacerations within the soft tissues around the spine
  • Weakness, wobbliness, inability to walk, paralysis of one or more legs
  • Crying out with movement of the spine
  • Fever, lethargy, poor appetite

    Diagnosis

    Evaluation of the dog with neck or back pain begins with a complete medical history and a thorough physical examination. An extensive neurologic examination may also be indicated. If the pain can be localized to the neck or back, then several tests may be recommended to further investigate the possible cause of the pain. Such tests include the following:

  • Baseline blood tests such as a complete blood count (CBC), biochemical profile, urinalysis, and urine culture are performed to look for signs of infection and assess various organ functions.

  • Abdominal radiographs (X-rays) are taken to identify any abnormalities in the abdominal organs, soft tissues around the spine, etc.

  • Spinal radiographs are performed to assess the vertebrae, the disks, and the spinal canal, and are usually performed under heavy sedation or general anesthesia.

  • Serology may be performed for infectious diseases that can cause back pain, such as leptospirosis and brucellosis.

    If a spinal or vertebral problem is suspected or identified from results of the initial tests, then further procedures may be necessary to define the disease and formulate a treatment plan. Such procedures include advanced imaging techniques, such as the following:

  • Myelography involves the insertion of a dye that shows up white on x-rays, into the area around the spine cord. Myelography is performed under general anesthesia via a spinal tap, and is useful in diagnosing disc herniation, spinal cord trauma, and/or certain types of cancer.

  • Cerebral spinal fluid (CSF) analysis may be recommended to search for certain inflammatory or infectious disorders, especially meningitis. The fluid is retrieved at the time of a spinal tap.

  • Computed tomography (CT scan) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) may be indicated in selected cases.

  • Electromyelography (EMG) and muscle biopsy may be considered in cases of suspected muscle disorders.

    Treatment

    Treatment varies widely for patients with back or neck pain, depending upon the nature of the disease and the extent of the tissues involved. It is important to realize that with the exception of strict rest, there is very little that owners can do symptomatically for these patients at home. It is important for your veterinarian to identify a specific cause, then appropriate treatment plans can be devised for each animal.

    Depending on the severity of signs, treatment may be provided on an outpatient basis or may necessitate hospitalization. Treatments may involve medication, surgery or both.

  • Medical management may include anti-inflammatory agents (nonsteroidal or corticosteroids), antibiotics, muscle relaxants, and/or chemotherapeutic agents, etc.

  • Surgical intervention may be recommended in cases of spinal trauma, paralysis from disk disease, infections of the disks or vertebrae, and cancer in or around the spinal cord.

    Home Care

    Response to therapy should be monitored closely and adjustments made as necessary. Administer all prescribed medications and return for follow up evaluations as directed by your veterinarian. Report any and all changes to your veterinarian.

    Keep your pet in an environment that minimizes excessive movement, and do not exercise your pet without permission from your veterinarian. The prognosis for animals with back pain varies widely. Some causes are readily treatable, while others are more serious and life threatening.

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