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Caring for the Canine Spine

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A healthy spine starts with preventative care. Why wait until the dog has a specific issue before investigating ways to treat that specific problem and make your dog’s back healthier? In the case of spinal issues, prevention really is the best medicine! In this blog, we discuss some of best ways to care for the spines and backs of our active German Shepherd Dogs. These options can be used both before problems start or after an issue arises to help a dog recover.

Protection Dog SittingCore strengthening and Conditioning

Keeping a dog in good physical condition should be the first step. One of the best preventatives and supports for the canine spine is a proper conditioning program that includes core strengthening exercises. We have written about this previously, in our blog on Canine Core Conditioning. Prior to beginning any conditioning program, the dog should be evaluated by your veterinarian. Dogs with pre-existing conditions or injuries would benefit most from having canine physical therapist create a customized program to address their particular condition.

Chiropractic care

For active working dogs and family companions, regular chiropractic care should be part of their routine maintenance. Chiropractic care works by maintaining the proper alignment of the vertebrae in the spine; this in turn helps maintain proper nerve function and muscle alignment and action. Chiropractic care can also reduce pain and inflammation in areas aggravated by misaligned vertebrae. This can be very beneficial for older dogs suffering from arthritis, back pain, and spondylosis. We have seen older dogs that could barely stand up and walk come out of a chiropractic adjustment bouncing, trotting, and leaping on their own into their vehicles. Dogs whose back pain could barely be touched with a combination of NSAID pain killers and muscle relaxants have, after one chiropractic adjustment, shown a completely changed demeanor and a return of regular movement, resulting in a complete alleviation of the need for any harsh drugs to manage pain and stiffness. While chiropractic care certainly is not a ‘cure all’, it can make a world of difference for many dogs.

Prior to a chiropractic adjustment, the chiropractor evaluates the dog’s movement, gait, and flexibility. They also will feel along the dog’s spine, looking for any subluxations (which can be felt, often as a sudden ‘dip’ in the vertebrae of the spine), heat, tightness or tenderness. They can then adjust the dog’s spine using a hand-held activator that uses pressure and vibration to return the vertebra to its correct position. Manual adjustments can also be made, if necessary, particularly to areas like the sacroiliac joint. The chiropractor can also perform a little muscle work, massaging and lengthening the muscles alongside the spine to help them relax and hold the adjustment better. Acute conditions may require several visits spaced out over the course of one or two weeks, until a maintenance level of a monthly adjustment or “as needed” adjustment can be reached.

In German Shepherd Dogs, common areas of focus are the thoracolumbar junction (TL junction), the lumbar area (which serves as the suspension system of the spine), and the lumbosacral region. These are the areas where subluxations are the most common, and they can impede movement and flexibility, impinge nerves and alter nerve function, and abnormally stretch or shorten muscles. The signs are often subtle, such as a slight alteration in the gait of the rear legs, where the dog does not step quite so far underneath themselves when they walk. Other signs can include stiffness, lack of flexibility (particularly on one side), heat from a particular area of the spine (inflammation),  chronic pacing movement instead of trotting, and even gastrointestinal issues (often associated with the TL junction).

Regular chiropractic care can help a variety of conditions, from subluxation to arthritis, spondylosis, and even lameness. Certain conditions such as intervertebral disc disease and bulging discs should be approached with great caution, and only under close supervision of a veterinarian. As always, discuss chiropractic care with your veterinarian. A listing of certified animal chiropractors can be found through the American Veterinary Chiropractic Association, the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association (AHVMA), or the Veterinary Orthopedic Manipulation (VOM) Technology organization.

Cold Laser Therapy

Cold laser therapy has shown great promise for helping with soft tissue repair, and with reducing pain and inflammation associated with arthritis or injury. This can be an excellent treatment for arthritis in the spine, intervertebral disc disease, and injuries of the spine and surrounding muscles.

Laser therapy works by using light at a particular frequency to initiate the body’s own healing response. Blood flow increases in the areas treated by the laser, bringing more red blood cells and more oxygen to the affected areas. The increase in nutrient-rich blood nourishes the surrounding cells and promotes healing and repair, while an increase in lymphatic and venous return helps remove waste and damaged cells.

Many veterinary practices now offer packages of Class IV laser treatments. The laser therapy is non-invasive; in most cases, the dog just sits or lays there while the technician moves the hand-held laser wand over the affected areas. The treatments only last a few minutes, and usually are performed several times over the course of a few weeks before tapering off to an ‘as needed’ basis. Check with your veterinarian to see if they offer laser treatments; if not, a search of other local practices may help you find a vet that offers laser therapy. Specific laser companies such as Cutting Edge lasers will also allow you to search for a veterinarian using one of their lasers near you.


Acupuncture may help several conditions of the spine, including intervertebral disc disease, cauda equina, and DM. While it may not cure some of these conditions, acupuncture can help alleviate some of the symptoms associated with them. This improves the quality of life for the patient. Acupuncture can also help with the pain and inflammation associated with injury and arthritis, and can decrease the need for harsh drugs.

Acupuncture works through stimulating various points on or under the skin that release a flow of energy, which then travels through channels called meridians. The stimulation of these points help initiate healing in the body. There are several hypotheses about how acupuncture works, such as stimulating nerves and causing the release of endorphins from the brain, or by reducing pro-inflammatory protein markers in the body and thereby decreasing inflammation and pain. Regardless of the actual mechanism, acupuncture has shown effectiveness in treating chronic pain in multiple studies. More information on acupuncture’s use in animals can be found on the website for the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society (IVAS).

The acupuncturist will usually assess and evaluate the dog before the first treatment, asking you questions about any symptoms you have seen or things that you have noticed. The treatment itself will usually require that the dog sit or lie still while the acupuncturist places the thin, sharp needles at various acupuncture or acupressure points. The needles are left in for a specific amount of time that can vary based on the condition being treated. Many dogs relax very deeply during their acupuncture treatment, to the point that they fall asleep on the floor or table! Animal acupuncturists can be found through the AHVMA and the IVAS.

Using a combination of these various options, you can create a customized support program for your dog to keep his back in top condition throughout his lifetime.

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