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5 Common Back Problems in Elderly Dogs

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By Tim Falk

Published: 10/11/2021, edited: 10/11/2021

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As dogs age, their bodies start to show signs of wear and tear. A wide range of physiological changes can also occur that can significantly impact your dog’s health and well-being.

One area that can be a source of much discomfort for senior dogs is back pain. Several back problems can hamper your older pet’s quality of life and potentially cause other issues.

Let’s take a closer look at 5 common back problems in elderly dogs, the symptoms to watch out for, and how you can help prevent them or minimize their impact.


#1. Spondylosis

Spondylosis, or spondylosis deformans as it’s officially known, affects the vertebrae in a dog’s spine. This degenerative condition causes bony spurs to develop along the spinal vertebrae.

While it can affect younger dogs too, spondylosis most commonly occurs in elderly dogs. 

Symptoms 

In many cases, dogs with spondylosis won’t show any signs of pain or discomfort. However, the bone spurs can compress nerves, resulting in pain for your senior pooch.

Symptoms of spondylosis to keep an eye out for include:

  • Excessive barking or whining

  • Lameness

  • Stiffness

  • Change in flexibility

Causes

Spondylosis is a condition that most commonly affects older dogs as a result of ageing. It’s thought that as many as 70% of dogs over 9 years of age are affected by the condition as wear and tear start to take a toll on the joints and intervertebral discs in a dog’s spine. 

As joints degenerate over time, bony spurs develop to provide increased stability. And while they often don’t result in any symptoms, they can cause pain, lameness, and reduced flexibility for dogs.

Diagnosis

The first step in diagnosing spondylosis deformans is for a vet to give your pet a physical examination. X-rays of the thoracic and lumbar spine are used to rule out other conditions that could potentially be causing pain for your dog. MRIs and myelography (another form of x-ray that uses contrast dye to highlight spinal cord injuries) may also be used to form a full picture of your dog’s spinal health.

Treatment

The best course of treatment of spondylosis in dogs varies depending on the symptoms exhibited. In many cases, dogs don’t show any signs of pain and don't require treatment. Pain relief medication may be prescribed and minor lifestyle changes recommended if your pet is showing signs of discomfort. 

If any of the bony spurs are impinging on nerves, surgical removal may be required.

Average cost of treatment: $900 – $2,500


#2. Intervertebral disc disease

Canine intervertebral disc disease (IVDD) is another condition that can affect the spinal cord of elderly dogs. The result of gradual degeneration over time, IVDD occurs when the intervertebral discs, which act as cushions between vertebrae, become swollen or rupture. 

The severity of IVDD can vary from mild to serious, with paralysis a risk if the condition is left untreated. IVDD can also occur suddenly or develop gradually.

Symptoms 

IVDD can cause varying levels of pain for dogs, depending on the severity of the condition. Some of the symptoms that may result include:

Causes

IVDD occurs when the shock-absorbing intervertebral discs in a dog’s spine can no longer function as they should. This can cause 2 types of spinal cord damage.

The first is compression, which is a result of the wear and tear of pressure on the spinal cord. The second type is concussion, which is the damage caused by a rapidly extruded disc.

IVDD is also more likely to affect certain breeds, including the Dachshund, Beagle, and Pekingese.

Diagnosis

A veterinarian will examine your dog and may want to perform a number of tests before diagnosing IVDD. These could include x-rays, MRIs, a neurological exam, and myelography.

Treatment

The treatment for IVDD depends on the severity of the damage to your dog’s spinal cord. In mild cases, pain relief and anti-inflammatory medications along with cage rest may be recommended.

In cases of severe damage, surgery may be required. This may need to be followed up by a physical therapy regime to aid your pet’s return to full mobility.

Average cost of treatment: $2,000 – $12,000


#3. Physical injury

Next on our list of 5 common back problems in elderly dogs is physical injury. Several situations and accidents can cause spinal trauma in dogs, including car accidents and bite wounds. Treatment will vary depending on the nature and severity of the injury. Injuries could include anything from bruising and strains to ruptured discs and even fractured vertebrae.

Symptoms 

Symptoms that could indicate a back injury for your elderly dog include:

  • Limping or lameness

  • Stiffness

  • Pain in the neck, back, or limbs

  • Excessive vocalization

  • Loss of coordination

  • Reluctance to exercise

Of course, symptoms can vary greatly depending on the nature of the injury, so monitor your dog closely for signs that something just isn’t quite right.

Causes

There are many potential causes for back injuries in dogs. The cause could be something simple, such as landing awkwardly when jumping out of the car. Or it could be something much more traumatic or violent, such as a bite wound, a fall, or even a car accident.

Diagnosis

Your vet will need to physically examine your pet to determine the nature of their injury. If you witnessed the injury, your information will also be extremely useful. 

Based on the symptoms displayed, the vet may order x-rays, CT scans, MRIs, and other tests to determine the full extent of your dog’s injury.

Treatment

Treatment of back injuries in elderly dogs depends on the nature and severity of the injury. In some cases, pain relief medication and rest may be all that’s required, but more serious injuries might require surgery or ongoing physical therapy.

Average cost of treatment: $1,000 – $10,000


#4. Arthritis

Arthritis is a health problem that many dogs will encounter as they age. As the cartilage in joints deteriorates, the resulting pain can be extremely debilitating, and the condition can also have an impact on your dog’s spine.

Symptoms 

Some of the common symptoms that could indicate your pet’s back pain is caused by arthritis include:

  • Difficulty moving around, including getting up or lying down

  • Reluctance to exercise

  • Pain and vocalization of pain

  • Stiffness

  • Unusual gait

  • Lethargy

If you notice any of these symptoms, take your dog to the vet for a check-up.

Causes

Spinal arthritis is caused by the deterioration of joint cartilage over time. While wear and tear is an important consideration, several other factors can increase a dog’s risk of arthritis. Large and giant dogs are more at risk, as are obese dogs because carrying weight places extra stress on joints. Injuries suffered earlier in life can also be a factor, while genetics play a part too.

Diagnosis

Following a physical examination, a vet will request x-rays of a dog’s spine before diagnosing arthritis. Other tests may also be required depending on the nature of your dog’s symptoms.

Treatment

The treatment for osteoarthritis focuses on managing the condition. However, the exact steps taken could vary from one dog to the next. They could include pain relief and anti-inflammatory medication, supplements to promote joint health, physiotherapy, and even taking steps to ensure that your dog maintains a healthy weight.

Average cost of treatment: $200 – $2,500


#5. Degenerative myelopathy

Degenerative myelopathy is another back problem that can plague elderly dogs. A chronic disease that affects the spinal cord, this serious condition causes progressive weakening of the hind limbs and can eventually lead to paralysis.

Symptoms 

At first, the symptoms of degenerative myelopathy are very similar to arthritis symptoms. As the symptoms increase in severity, they may include:

  • Difficulty getting up from a resting position

  • Weakness in hind limbs

  • Loss of coordination in hind limbs

  • Inability to walk up steps or climb hills

  • Inability to exercise

  • Pain due to nerve damage

Causes

Unfortunately, we don’t know what causes degenerative myelopathy in dogs. However, it’s quite possible that genetics play a part. Certain breeds, such as the German Shepherd, are more susceptible to the condition. It’s also more common in older dogs than in their younger counterparts.

Diagnosis

Your vet will give your dog a physical examination and ask you for information about the development of your pet’s symptoms. Blood and urine tests can help rule out other conditions, with x-rays, myelography, and other imaging options used to help determine the diagnosis.

Treatment

The treatment for degenerative myelopathy focuses on relieving pain. Some steps your vet may recommend include:

  • Physical therapy promote range of motion

  • Dietary supplements that may slow the progression of the disease

  • Managing diet and activity levels to ensure that your dog maintains a healthy weight

Average cost of treatment: $500 – $3,000




If your dog is at risk of developing any of the common back problems in elderly dogs featured here, check out our pet insurance comparison tool. Brought to you by Pet Insurer, Wag! Wellness lets pet parents compare insurance plans from leading companies like Figo and Healthy Paws.

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