Reviewed for accuracy on October 3, 2019, by Dr. Jennifer Coates, DVM
Back pain in dogs can be caused by any number of conditions: weight gain, an injury, anatomical abnormalities, degenerative conditions, arthritis, infection or even cancer.
If you suspect that your dog is experiencing back pain, limit your pet’s activity and call your veterinarian immediately.
Here are some of the treatments and techniques that your veterinarian might recommend to get your dog back to feeling their best.
Traditional prescription pain medications (e.g., nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories or opioids) are helpful in providing fast relief for back pain, says Dr. Michel Selmer, a certified traditional Chinese veterinary medicine practitioner at Advanced Animal Care Center in Huntington Station, New York.
But if used incorrectly, they can do more harm than good.
The temporary sense of relief they provide may encourage your dog to be more active than they should be, which could further exacerbate whatever injury or condition is causing the pain, says Dr. Selmer.
However, leaving a pet’s pain untreated in an attempt to limit activity is cruel and unethical.
Veterinarians will often combine a prescription for a pain reliever with a recommendation for rest or limited, controlled exercise (e.g., leash walking) to prevent such issues.
Some types of pain medications, like corticosteroids, can also stop or slow the immune system reactions that the body needs to heal, Dr. Gladstein says. That’s why she’s not a big proponent of using them on her patients. “You have a lot of other options available to you,” she says.
Veterinarians may also prescribe muscle relaxants and nutritional supplements, or even recommend surgery if your dog’s back pain is severe enough.
Physical therapy helps relieve back pain by strengthening the parts of the body that are weak and stretching out the parts that are tight, says Dr. Selmer. It also helps speed up the body’s natural ability to heal, and can help avoid a potentially painful and expensive surgery.
Physical therapy can take many shapes and forms. Your veterinarian may refer you to a specialist or develop a special exercise routine to address your dog’s specific needs. Physical therapy may also include applying ice or heat to the affected area.
Dr. Gladstein says she often tells pet parents to place a heating pad on low power on the dog’s back for 10 minutes every hour to help relieve pain. That, combined with a few weeks of rest, is sometimes all that’s needed for the dog to heal from a mild back injury.
Hydrotherapy works very much like physical therapy, except the exercises are performed in water, Dr. Gladstein says.
The buoyancy of water reduces the pressure on your dog’s muscles and joints, allowing them to regain strength and range of motion while minimizing strain.
Hydrotherapy also helps reduce back pain in dogs by stimulating blood flow, which brings more oxygen to the affected area and boosts the body’s natural healing process, explains Dr. Gladstein.
Cold laser therapy (also called low level laser therapy) is another way of stimulating the body's natural ability to heal.
When the light energy of a laser hits the damaged cells, it stimulates blood flow, again bringing more healing oxygen to the area and improving nerve and muscle function, Dr. Gladstein says. Therapeutic lasers can also have an anti-inflammatory effect for your dog.
Laser therapy can also help boost the body’s ability to heal by triggering the release of stem cells, adds Dr. Selmer.
Ultrasound machines use sound waves to heal, Dr. Gladstein says. The waves can produce heat and/or increase blood flow to the area, which may reduce swelling and inflammation and relieve pain.
Because the ultrasound waves work at a deeper level than laser therapy, they can be helpful in relieving back pain that originates in hard-to-reach places.
According to Chinese medicine, pain is caused by stagnation in the body, says Dr. Selmer. Acupuncture is a 3,000-year-old traditional Chinese medicine healing practice that reduces pain by improving the flow of chi or energy.
Tiny needles are inserted into the skin at specific locations on your dog’s body. These points connect various organs and body systems via channels called meridians. This stimulates the energy of the body part, reducing stagnation, improving blood flow and relieving pain.
Tui na is a type of massage that is often used in conjunction with acupuncture. But instead of just addressing specific acupuncture trigger points, tui na can involve massaging the whole channel to help relieve pain and stagnation, Dr. Selmer says.
Instead of using just the body’s natural resources, Chinese herbal and food therapy adds specific ingredients to improve the flow of chi and reduce pain.
For example, in Chinese medicine, the condition of the kidneys is connected to the condition of the bones. If your dog’s back pain was caused by a spinal problem, Dr. Selmer would reduce pain by prescribing foods and herbs that strengthen the kidneys.
Turmeric is a popular ingredient on many Chinese food therapy menus, as it has anti-inflammatory properties and increases blood flow, Dr. Gladstein says.
But Dr. Selmer discourages pet parents from loading their dogs up on the pain-fighting herbs and foods they find online without consulting a veterinarian.
A veterinarian that specializes in herbal therapy relies on a more holistic approach that ensures that you aren’t mixing herbs, foods, medications and other therapies that could render each other inert, or worse, have dangerous side effects for your dog.
By: Helen Anne Travis