I recently did a small study of 63 dogs—I assessed all the dogs hands-on (after asking their owners if they thought their dog had back pain). 46% of the dogs had severe back pain, and 44% of them had moderate back pain. So 90% of the dogs I assessed had significant back pain going on (I consider moderate back pain to be significant).
Here’s a kicker! 60% of the owners of these dogs with significant back pain had no idea that their dogs had a problem. I’ve assessed thousands of dogs for back pain over the years, and I have to tell you that most of the time people completely miss back pain in their dogs.
Not only that, I’ve assessed multiple dogs with significant back pain who had been examined by a veterinarian who missed the issue altogether.
Let’s talk about why this is, so we can cast the light of understanding on this situation. There are good reasons why back pain in dogs is underdiagnosed, and there is no use in beating yourself up and feeling guilty if it turns out that your dog has back pain, and you couldn’t tell.
(I’ll let you in on a little secret – I can’t tell when my own dogs have back pain unless I assess them hands-on! I can’t tell by watching them.)
Dogs Communicate Very Differently than Humans
However, we tend to expect our dogs to be like us.
This leads to a communication mismatch, and this is one of the reasons that we often simply don’t get it when our dogs have pain. Let’s dig into the differences, so we can understand our dogs better.
Humans are vocal creatures. We make a lot of noise with our mouth, and because we talk about what we experience, we expect our dogs to do the same sort of thing, they don’t.
Dogs use their vocal communication very differently than us—dogs will vocalize, yes, but they tend to vocalize with excitement (playing, seeing other dogs etc.), and when being protective (guarding the house form the terrible threat of the postman).
Many dogs vocalize little, if at all—my whippet, Pearl, only very rarely makes any noise. Some dogs are very noisy—Mitzi, my other dog is like this. He barks every time any dog he can hear barks, and if anything happens in the street.
Dogs hardly ever give voice to pain—unlike us humans, who give voice to pretty much every little twinge a lot of the time. So we expect our dogs to make a noise when they hurt. This leads to a lot of dogs silently suffering with pain.
This is the mismatch that humans need to really understand. I’ll say it again, because this is the most important thing for you to take home today. Most dogs will not vocalize pain unless it is very severe, agonizing pain. By the time a dog starts groaning or yelping, they will usually be in a lot of pain.
Please keep this in mind. The only way to know for sure if your dog has back pain is a skilled hands-on assessment.
Many Dogs Show No Obvious Physical Signs of Significant Back Pain
I assess many, many dogs who seem to be totally normal to their owner, but who are carrying significant back pain. They are still jumping on the couch or into the car, or they may still be playing with other dogs. Mitzi, my own dog, is a good example of this. I have assessed him a few times to find that he was suffering severe neck pain, yet showed no obvious signs at all.
There are several reasons for this:
- Even if your dog is sore, when something exciting or arousing happens, they get a big jolt of adrenaline, and adrenaline suppresses pain. This is also true of high drive, working dog types. When there’s a job to do, they can ignore a lot of pain.
- If your dog is stressed, the same thing happens—this one reason why it can be hard to pick up back pain on a vet visit.
- Dogs with a history of trauma may shut down, and not respond to assessment even when they are quite sore—I often see this.
- Some dogs have a very high pain tolerance, and will carry on, seeming active and normal even with severe pain.
- The signs of back pain can be very subtle and hard to pick up (more about that in a bit).
You have a better than even chance that you have a dog with a sore back that has not been diagnosed.
How Do You Find Someone Who Can Assess Your Dog?
This can be hard. I didn’t get taught how to assess properly for back pain at university—I taught myself over the last 20 years as I formulated the Whole Energy Body Balance (WEBB) method. And as I said, I sometimes see dogs who have been examined by vets who have missed significant back pain.
You could find a vet or other professional who specializes in rehab, physiotherapy, chiropractic or hands-on work with dogs. You could look for a skilled animal body worker/masseuse. You could learn how to assess your dog for yourself.
You need to find someone who checks every little bit of your dog’s spine from their skull through to the very tip of their tail. They will need to firmly and gently palpate all the tissues (muscles, fascia) surrounding the spine. They will need to assess for healthy movement throughout the spine. They will need to be very sensitive to your dog’s response to their assessment. They will need to be both specific and particular as well as able to explain to you what they are doing, and what is happening in your dog’s body.
You may need to take your dog to a range of practitioners with different skills, or try a few different ones out until you find the one who you can see is kind, gentle, firm, and has the necessary skills.
If you can’t find someone nearby to you with the right skillset, I can teach you how to assess and treat your own dog with Skype sessions.
Subtle Signs of Back Pain in Dogs That Many People Miss
Here are some signs that your pet may have back pain. If you notice any of these, a hands-on assessment is needed! (The signs go from less severe to more severe as you go down the list.)
- Behavioral changes—becoming grumpy or snappy, not wanting to be touched, not wanting to be near humans, becoming distant or disconnected, avoiding other dogs and children. This can be very subtle and hard to pick up.
- Tremors, trembling, shaking.
- Slow to get up and down from lying—stiff and awkward. Often their eyes will be wide open and worried looking as they do this, and their ears will be pinned back and down.
- Flickering and twitching of the skin when patting your pet.
- Warm or hot areas along the spine, sore areas along their back (when stroking them you may notice your pet suddenly turn to look at you with hard wide open round eyes at a certain spot when you connect with it).
- Sensitivity to touch and/or movement (possible unexpected and/or out of character aggression).
- Not wanting to play at all (or as much as usual).
- Being stiff and slow after play and/or exercise.
- Seeming to not want to eat or drink (sometimes they will eat and drink happily if you put their bowls up on a low bench—this is because it hurts to bend their head down so far).
- Having trouble going to the toilet (which may lead to constipation and/or urinary tract infections).
- Lameness—if your pet has a chronic limp, and x-rays etc. can’t find a problem, it may be back pain and pinched nerves causing this.
- Tail held down low in an unusual position, not wagging the tail, guarding the tail from being touched.
- Not shaking from the head all the way down to the tip of the tail (this is an important one!).
- Not stretching like they used to.
- Changes in posture, holding their body differently (e.g. hunched back).
- Reluctant or unable to jump on the couch/bed or into the car.
- Won’t get up at all.
- Yelping or moaning when moving, or when touched.
- Wobbly, weak, unable to walk properly, may fall over.
- Knuckling over of a foot or feet, progressing to not noticing when this is happening.
- Dragging a foot or feet.
- Paralysis of limbs, possibly of the whole back end.
- Collapse, unable to rise.
It’s quite a list, isn’t it? Another reason that these signs can slip past us (like Mitzi’s did for me), is that back pain often starts off being mild, and then slowly gets worse. When there is a gradual change, and you see your pets every day, it can be very hard to pick it up.
The More Aware You are That Back Pain is a Serious Underdiagnosed Problem in Dogs, the Less Likely Your Dog Will Suffer from it
Awareness is everything. I saw a little dog today with severe back pain. His mum new that something wasn’t right, and had taken him to the vets three times to be told they couldn’t find anything wrong. So persist if you feel something may be wrong. Try different vets, ask them to assess your dog’s back more carefully, and don’t give in. Find a skilled pet body worker.
You may need to educate your vet. Many vets don’t much like that. Be kind, though, as they are nearly always doing the absolute best they know how to care for your pets.
And have your dogs assessed often—I recommend at least once a month, as they only have to sleep in a funny position one night to wake up the next morning with a sore back!
Allan & Perri Wain, Kaewsap/Shutterstock.com, Tatiana Chekryzhova/Shutterstock.com, ABO PHOTOGRAPHY/Shutterstock.com, Echo Grid/stocksnap.io, Bruze Walker/stocksnap.io.
Many clients remark that Dr Edward has a way with animals quite unlike any other vet they have ever seen. Pets who are normally fearful, or who would never approach a stranger are drawn to him. He has an intuitive ability to connect with and understand animals.
Apart from being a vet, Dr Edward is a singer/songwriter, loves gardening, and likes to paint. He is owned by Pearl (a very graceful, willfully disobedient Whippet), Mitzi (an out of control Shitzu/Silky cross), and Parvati and fred (2 lovely cats).
Latest posts by Edward Bassingthwaighte, BVSc (see all)
- Dogs in Pain Part 1: It can be Surprisingly Hard to Tell When Your Dog is in Pain! - July 8, 2018
- Dogs in Pain Part 2: Treating the Pain—What are Your Options? - June 24, 2018
- Back Pain is a Severely Underdiagnosed Problem in Dogs - April 16, 2018