Recognizing Neck and Back Pain in Dogs

By Kate Mueller, DVM
MSPCA-Angell West, Waltham

One of the most stressful experiences a pet owner can have is knowing your dog just doesn’t seem “right,” but the exact problem is elusive. Maybe Fido seems reluctant to go up the stairs, or he doesn’t want to go on his daily walk. Maybe it’s that he is not quite as enthusiastic about dinner as usual. Perhaps it’s just a look in his eyes that tells you he isn’t feeling his best.  All of these things can be signs of pain in animals. When pain is secondary to a known trauma like a cut or broken bone, it is easy to diagnose. However, spinal pain is fairly common in dogs and is typically not associated with a known traumatic event. Therefore, it can be much harder to recognize. Identifying neck and back pain promptly can help owners seek care for their pets, and veterinarians can perform diagnostics to pinpoint the cause of the pain and provide treatment and relief.

As previously mentioned, signs of neck and back pain in dogs may be hard to recognize. Most dogs will not whimper or cry in pain (other than occasionally at the time of acute injury, or when the pain is intermittently exacerbated). Signs that may be seen include lethargy, change in attitude, and out-of-character aggression, such as trying to bite when picked up or petted. Some animals may have a decreased appetite, or stop eating entirely. Of course, appetite changes can be a sign of many different disease processes; pain should be a consideration especially when decreased appetite is not accompanied by other gastrointestinal signs like vomiting and diarrhea.

A dachshund exhibiting a hunched posture consistent with thoracolumbar (back) pain.

Many animals with neck and back pain will be reluctant to participate in normal activities, such as jumping on or off furniture, going up and down stairs, playing with housemates, and going for walks. They may walk gingerly, like they are walking on eggshells, or with a wobbly or “drunken” gait, especially in the hind limbs. Dogs with neck pain are often reluctant to lift their heads fully and may walk with low head carriage, and dogs with back pain sometimes stand with a hunched posture or even may have a tense abdomen, as a result of using their abdominal muscles to try to stabilize and support a sore back. Tremors or excessive shivering (especially when it is not cold) can also be a sign of pain.

A beagle exhibiting a hunched posture consistent with cervical (neck) pain.

If you suspect your pet has neck or back pain, prompt veterinary attention is recommended. Your veterinarian will start with a complete physical exam and will attempt to identify and localize the source of the pain. This is done by palpation of the spine. Some dogs may react by crying out when a certain spot on the back or neck is firmly pushed; many dogs do not cry out even in this scenario, but will instead exhibit muscle fasciculation (muscle twitches) when the painful area is reached. If the pain is in the neck, the dog may resist having his or her head moved in a normal range of motion up, down, and side to side.

Once back or neck pain has been identified, your veterinarian will further evaluate your dog to determine whether any neurological deficits are present. In many dogs, pain is present in the absence of any neurological deficits. The first deficit to be seen as disease progresses is typically weakness or a wobbly gait, most commonly in the hind limbs. Your veterinarian will watch your dog walk, to see how he carries his head, how he moves his legs, and whether he scuffs or drags any of his feet.

Following the exam during which pain was identified, further diagnostics may be discussed to diagnose the cause. The categories of neck and back pain can be broadly defined as soft tissue injury (for example a pulled muscle ‑ this is not actually a spinal injury, but presenting signs can be similar), trauma, intervertebral disc disease, infectious disease, inflammatory disease, and neoplastic disease (cancer). Intervertebral disc disease can occur in any dog, but is more common in certain breeds, including French bulldogs, dachshunds, beagles, Shih tzus, and basset hounds. Infectious diseases that cause neck and back pain include tick borne bacterial diseases. Diagnostics that may be discussed include blood work, radiographs (x-rays), and potentially more advanced imaging including MRI. Treatment in all cases includes pain management; other treatments will depend on the underlying cause of the pain.

Recognizing neck and back pain in dogs can be difficult, sometimes even for veterinarians. However, prompt recognition and treatment allows for relief of pain and, in many cases, prevention of the progression of disease to a more serious or irreversible state. Keeping these tips in mind may help you to identify neck or back pain in your dog when he or she “just isn’t acting right.”

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