Why do dogs get pinched nerves? Just like people, dogs get pinched nerves in their neck and spine and the dynamics are pretty similar, only that in dogs, due to their conformation, the chances for complications are greater. The symptoms of a pinched nerve may not be readily recognized by dog owners when they first present and they're often confused with other conditions. Crying out in pain is not uncommon. Fortunately, there are ways to alleviate the pain through rest and medications. It may sound surprising to some to learn that dogs also get acupuncture and chiropractic care when they develop neck and back pain related to spinal problems.
A Lesson in Anatomy
Let's start by taking a look at the dog's spine. A dog's spinal column is composed by a series of small, overlapping bones that are medically known as "vertebrae," which are meant to make the dog's neck and back flexible and protect the spinal cord, a cable of nerves that transmits important information between the brain and the rest of the body. From head to tail, the spinal column is composed by 7 cervical vertebrae, 13 thoracic vertebrae, 7 lumbar vertebrae, 3 sacral vertebrae and a variable number of caudal vertebrae located in the dog's tail. Right in between each vertebrae, are several disks known as "intervertebral disks" which act as shock absorbers and provide cushioning so to prevent the vertebrae from rubbing against each other.
When Things go Wrong
In a healthy and happy dog, the intervertebral disks are in good shape. The dog can easily flex his neck and enjoy everyday activities such as walking and running. Problems start when for one reason or another, the disks start extruding their contents and herniate, putting pressure on the nerve roots causing the "pinched nerve." In a "pinch" to have an idea of what really happens, imagine the disk being a jelly donut, suggests veterinarian Dr. Fiona. As dogs age, the jelly starts becoming chalky and hard, so when the neck or back flexes, instead of compressing, the chalky substance extrudes causing what is known as a "herniated disk." This can happen from trauma, aging, being overweight or genetic tendencies as seen in chondrodystrophic breeds with long backs and short legs such as dachshunds, bassets hounds and corgis.
Pinched Nerve in the Neck
When a disk herniates, it puts pressure on the dog's spinal cord causing significant pain and pressure. The symptoms of a pinched nerve in dogs vary based on which part is affected. When the pinched nerve affects the neck, the neck is tense and the dog will assume positions to get relief. Affected dogs may arch their back or keep their head lowered, pointing to the ground. The gait may appear slow and uncoordinated and some dogs may limp. Some dogs may also be reluctant to lie down or hesitant to lower their head to eat and drink or turn around in tight places. Dog owners may report seeing "whale eyes" more than usual and even notice tremors in the neck area.
Pinched Nerve in the Back
When the dog develops a pinched nerve in the middle back and lower back, the symptoms may be more dramatic. Symptoms may include weakness along with loss of sensation and paralysis of the dog's rear legs with the dog dragging its toes (legs "giving out"), an uncoordinated gait (drunken sailor gait), arching of the back, and because the nerves that control the bladder and colon may be affected, the dog may develop trouble with urination and defecation and even urinary incontinence leading to accidents around the house in a well-house trained dog. When the first symptoms of herniation occur, time is of the essence, immediate surgical intervention can provide excellent results, explains Patricia J. Luttgen, a board-certified veterinary specializing in internal medicine.
A pinched nerve is not one of those conditions that one should take a "wait and see" approach. The longer the wait, the worse the prognosis can be, as things can degrade quickly. When there are mild symptoms, the pinched nerve can be treated using conservative treatment. Confinement for about 4 to 6 weeks to prevent the dog from running, jumping and further aggravating the area is very important. If the vet suggests to start brief walks, the dog should be walked on a harness instead of a collar.
During this exercise restriction period, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as Rimadyl, Etogesic, Deramaxx and Metacam are prescribed to reduce inflammation and swelling. Painkillers and a muscle relaxer known as methocarbamol are often prescribed as well.
While it may be tempting to initially treat the dog's pain at home using aspirin while waiting for a vet appointment, it's dangerous doing so. Based on the dog's level of pain and injury, the veterinarian may wish to prescribe a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug or even a steroid to reduce the pain and inflammation. If pet owners give aspirin before the appointment, the vet will have to wait up to 7 to 10 days until it's out of the system before being able to safely prescribe these drugs, explains Critical Care Vet.
On top of prescription medications, at home, for dog neck or upper back pain, dog owners can provide relief by using warm compresses. Dr Fiona recommends placing a wet towel into an unzipped a zip-lock bag and placing it in the microwave for about 2 minutes. Passed this timeframe, remove from the microwave and press out all the air making sure it's not too hot. Then, another towel can be placed over it and the compress can be applied over the dog's neck and upper back.
Veterinarians may recommend surgery if the dog is in severe pain, has been having repeated episodes and the dog is exhibiting nervous system symptoms. The surgery should be carried out within a few days in order to be effective and its goal is to remove the protruding disk material or a portion of the bone so pressure is relieved. Most herniated disk decompression surgeries are performed by the specialists in the field, board-certified veterinary surgeons.
Did you know? The term "nerve root signature" is used by veterinarians to depict the outward signs that occur secondary to irritation of the dog's nerve roots, which are the beginning of the nerves that branch off the spinal cord.