Many dogs, particularly those with long backs and short legs, are prone to back problems. As with most things, prevention is the best medicine. Why? Because back problems can progress to leg weakness, and even paralysis. Extended crate rest and therapy can be required. Some dogs require surgery, which is not always successful.
Dos and Don’ts to Minimize Risk of Back Problems in Dogs
Learn strategies to minimize the risk of back problems in your dog. Do your part to avoid back injury, which can be both painful and expensive.
Many Dogs are Prone to Back Problems
Degenerative Disc Disease
There are many dog breeds prone to ruptured discs in the back, which results from degenerative changes in the discs between the vertebra. This condition is referred to as degenerative disc disease (DDD). Problems with the discs such as herniation may cause pressure on the spinal cord, which may result in weakness or paralysis of the legs, and loss of bowel and bladder control. If any of these signs appear, your dog would need immediate veterinary evaluation and possible surgery.
Dog breeds with a known predisposition to DDD include German Shepherd, Doberman, Poodle, Pekinese, Lhaso Apso, Shih Tzu, and Cocker Spaniel. Breeds with long backs and short legs are notorious for DDD, and include Dachshund, Corgi, and Bassett Hound.
For most of these breeds, there seems to be a genetic predisposition to DDD. The need for surgery for ruptured discs is not usually related to age or traumatic injury, and occurs typically between the ages of 3 and 7 years old.
Yep, I’m a Reluctant Expert
As you might guess, I have a reason for my interest in this topic, of the “been there, done that” vein. My dachshund made me an expert of sorts.
I had a friend who tried to warn me not to adopt a dachshund. He said, “They’ll break your heart”, meaning their back problems result in the need for euthanasia. Mind you, when he was growing up in a small town, veterinarians did not refer working class pet owners to neurosurgeons for expensive surgery. Mainly, it just wasn’t widely available back then.
Times are different now. I live in a major city, with services readily available. My dachshund had surgery the same day I took him to my vet. The MRI was over $800, the surgery over $1000. Add the anesthesia, hospital stay, meds, etc., and you ring up a $3500 tab.
Prevention is the Best Cure
Prevention is the best cure. Now you might be saying, “If my dog’s breed is genetically predisposed to DDD, it’s hopeless.” It’s not hopeless. Would it be better if dogs breed had virtually no incidence of back problems? Of course, but if your dog is prone to back problems, why not do everything you can to minimize a ruptured disc?
While practicing precautions may or may not eliminate the occurrence of back problems, precautions can reduce the severity of back problems, and possibly make the difference in your pet needing surgery vs being able to recover with rest or therapy. Some statistics show that perhaps less than 20% of dachshunds with back pain, leg weakness, and even paralysis, require surgery.
Indoor Considerations to Minimize Back Injury
I was accustomed to having my dogs sleep with me, and join me on the couch. I had stairs for my dachshund, for the bed and couch. I had to have a home visit before I could adopt my little guy. Wonder why my case worker didn’t tell me that bed and couch access are a terrible idea, so no stairs!
Though he would go up the stairs, he usually jumped down. Jumping is horrible if your dog is predisposed to DDD. Love them enough to exile them from the bed and couch. I didn’t learn this tough love until after surgery.
Stairs can be a strain too. If you have stairs in your home, restrict access with a baby gate. If your dog needs to go up and down stairs, carry him if possible.
Outdoor Considerations to Protect Your Dog
Jumping and steps are issues for outdoors too. My dog would launch himself off the porch like he was competing in the Olympics. My sister acquired some free bricks from Craig’s List, and built a little wall around my porch, finishing it out with planters and other items to “enclose” most of our porch.
There are only three small steps to my yard, but my sister built a set of long, shallow steps near the originals, which my doxie seems to prefer, and uses much more often than the existing steps. His preference however is the ramp that my sister built on the other side of the porch. She had to put a lattice up on the ramp and steps however to keep him from jumping off the sides.
Running really fast (again Olympics) can also exacerbate back issues in dogs. If your dog is showing signs of pain, you may have to eliminate “free range” yard time.
Upright posture, such as “beg position” should be discouraged and eliminated. This puts additional pressure on the discs between the vertebrae. Upright posture has predisposed the human “breed” to back problems, right?
Be Careful How You Lift Your Dog
Dogs are not babies. Don’t lift them by grasping under their front legs. I place my right hand under my doxie’s bottom, scooping his hind quarters including his feet. I place my left hand at the rise of his chest. I lift, careful to not twist, and bring him against my chest.
Make Sure Your Dog Maintains a Healthy Weight
Easier said than done, but it is imperative to keep your dog at a healthy weight. Extra weight is a strain on the back, hips, and knees. Dogs like German Shepherds are predisposed to back and hip problems. Dogs like dachshunds are prone to back and knee problems. Extra weight compounds all of these problems.
I’ve always stayed away from soft or canned food, because it’s like doggie crack, it seems to me. Snacks and goodie treats can be an issue. Break cookies into tiny pieces. Dogs don’t have size conservation. If anything they’re counters. Give them two pieces, ¼ or less the size of their usual cookie. They’ll think they hit jackpot.
Good Nutrition for Your Dog’s Joint Health
Good nutrition is in the best interest of your dog’s overall health, including bone and joint health. Do your research, or just ask your vet for recommendations on the safest, most nutritious commercial dog food.
Most vets will say it’s perfectly fine to give your dog a supplement for bones and joints, such as glucosamine and chondroitin. While some may doubt the benefit, most will agree that they certainly won’t hurt.
Beware of Pain Killers for Your Dog
Avoid giving your dog aspirin, acetaminophen, or ibuprofen. These drugs are harsh on the stomach, kidneys, &/or liver. Talk to your vet about pain management. Most vets agree that pain management is a slippery slope. I know when my doxie is in pain, he doesn’t engage in Olympic-style jumps and sprints. And I know when my vet gave my elderly spaniel arthritis meds, I had to cut the dose because she felt so good I was afraid she would hurt herself with vigorous activity.
Talk to Your Veterinarian
This article is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Consult your veterinarian.