Are you hurting your dog's back?
If you are taking the time to read this blog, you are a caring dog owner. You want to make the right decisions in caring for your dog, and you definitely do not want to jeopardise your dog's health and wellbeing. But this can be very hard to do, because the right information is not always available, or easy to understand. To make your job as dog-parent even harder, the information that is available is often contradictory, with different opinions from various experts adding to the confusion.
One of the issues that is often debated, mainly on social media, is back pain in dogs. More specifically, the suggestion that certain activities can increase the risk of damage to a dog's spine. Some of the factors that have been raised as possible concerns in recent years are ball throwing and performing the 'sit-pretty' trick.
But what do we actually know about the causes of back pain in dogs? Not very much, as it turns out. Very few studies have looked at the activities associated with back problems in dogs. So let's firstly look at what we do know.
CHICKEN OR EGG - EGG OR CHICKEN
In order for us to know whether we can reduce our dogs' risks of developing back problems, it is important to understand more about canine spinal disease.
There are two main types of spinal disease that can be diagnosed by x-rays and other diagnostic imaging techniques - spondylosis and intervertebral disc disease (IVDD).
IVDD is a gradual process of deterioration of the disc in-between two vertebrae. The disc hardens, reducing it's ability to absorb pressure. As a result, a sudden strain on the spine can overload the disc, causing it to rupture.
Spondylosis happens when the ligaments that connect the adjacent vertebrae become ossified - which means the ligament fibres are gradually replaced by bone. This causes bone spurs to form between the vertebrae, that can eventually completely bridge the space between two adjacent vertebral bodies.Spondylosis can also occurr in conjunction with IVDD.
The causes of both spondylosis and IVDD are poorly understood, but in both diseases, repetitive trauma, normal age-related changes and genetics are thought to play a role (1)
Genetics: The reality is that there is a strong genetic component to the development of both diseases. 46 to 48% of Dachshunds have been shown to have some degree of IVDD, and in Boxer dogs spondylosis has been shown to have a heriditability factor of up to 40%.(2,3) and can be found in around 20% of all purebred dogs (4). The extent of the spondylosis seen on x-rays will increase as the dog gets older. Spondylosis has also been found in wolves (20%), dingoes (20%) and foxes (35%). Importantly, in a group of inbred wolves, the incidence of spondylosis was as high as 80% (5,6).
What does this mean? Regardless of what activities your dog engages in, there is a 20 to 40% chance that you will see signs of spondylosis on an x-ray of your dog's spine, epecially as your dog gets older - EVEN IF your dog shows no signs whatsoever of back pain. Inbreeding may increase the risks of your dog developing spinal problems.
Repetitive Trauma: Repetitive trauma occurrs from doing the same strenuousactivities over and over. A few activities have been specifically evaluated in the literature:
Pulling a weight: Modern sled dogs were compared to dogs not used for any pulling activity, with wolves and with dingoes. Sled dogs did not show a higher rate of spondylosis than the other groups of dogs. It is therefore unlikely that pulling activities contribute significantly to the occurrence of spondylosis (6).
Jumping on and off furniture: A study done on 2031 Dachshunds found no correlation between jumping on and off furniture and the appearance of IVDD - for those of you who are statistically minded, this was at p = <0.001, so this finding is pretty robust(2). However, if you have had a couch-surfing Dachsie that has had a disc problem, remember that there is an almost 50% genetic chance that your dog would have had this condition anyway even if he or she never saw a couch in his life.
The DachsLife 2015 study also found that dogs that were more active (exercise for more than 1 hour/day) had a decreased risk of developing IVDD.
No other activities have been specifically studied for their role in increasing a dog's risk of back problems. For the two activities that have been implicated in back pain on social media platforms, there are no data available.
THE CANINE HEALTHY BACK SURVEY
It became clear that we needed more information to help us make better decisions for our dogs. To this end, the Canine Healthy Back Survey was created. This survey included questions relating to breed, age, number of dogs in the household, history of joint disease, regular daily activities and exercise levels, sport and tricks. The aim was to see whether there were trends in canine back pain that should be investigated more thoroughly. In other words, are there activities that seem to be correlated with back problems in dogs?
The survey was distributed via social media platforms. A total of 246 responses were received.
As you read the overview of the results we obtained from this study, it is important to keep the following in mind:
- A very broad spectrum of factors was evaluated in this questionnaire – a far greater sample size would be needed for any of the results to truly be statistically significant. The results in this study are at best an indication of factors that should be studied more comprehensively.
- The total dogs in this study with reported back pain was 43%. There is a a high risk of reporting bias – the majority of respondents were clients of canine therapists already, by virtue of the forums on which the questionnaire was circulated. It may be that the majority of respondents who showed interest in completing a “healthy back” survey did so because of existing concerns about back problems in their dogs. It may be that the sampling was not entirely random.
- Border Collies were over-represented in the sample. This is likely because many of the forums where the survey was distributed were dog agility groups, where the Border Collie is a popular breed
- Always remember that correlation does not equal causation! Even where there appears to be an association between a particular activity and back pain, far more investigation would be required to clarify why this association is observed.
Univariable binary logistic regression was used to assess associations between activity factors and the presence of spinal pathology.
Mixed Breeds and Border Collies had a significantly greater reported incidence of back pain than any of the other breeds recorded. HOWEVER – “Mixed breed” was not always defined, and included giant breed mixes to dachshund mixes. It would be very difficult to draw any definitive conclusions from such a non-homogenous sample.
Total Border Collies in the total sample = 21% Total Mix breeds in the total sample = 17%
The Chart below shows the incidence of back pain per breed category:
It appears that mixed breeds have an incidence of back problems that is greater than the average that can be expected in a random sample of dogs.
A Chi-squared test (BrightStat.com) was used to determine the relationship between spinal pathology in the dogs and the activities that they were reported as doing. The following activities were positively associated with spinal pathology:
(ADL means Activities of Daily Living)
None of the other activities explored in this survey could be shown to have any statistically significant correlation with spinal pathology in this group of dogs. This includes:
- Sit Pretty
- Spinning in circles
- Standing on back legs
- Playing fetch with a toy
- Jogging with owners on or off leash
- Dog Agility
“The explanation requiring the fewest assumptions is most likely to be correct.” ― Franciscan friar William of Ockham
The biggest danger of making assumptions is that it distracts us from the real problem. It is only when we truly understand the nature of the problem that we are dealing with that we can find successful and lasting solutions.
Let's say that we assume jumping on and off furniture is bad, even though there seems to be little evidence to support this. We then assume that to keep our dogs safe we need to stop them jumping on and off things, and we assume that a responsible dog owner should be able to do this. You spend half your life shouting at your dog and he/she will do crazy things anyway when you are not at home or have your back turned, so ultimately you are setting yourself up for failure. Then when your dog, with an underlying genetic spinal degeneration, does develop symptoms you assume that it is your fault.
This is not healthy - not for you or for your dog. And it is also fundamentally flawed.
What do we know, and what can we control? We know that there are breeds with a genetic predisposition to spinal problems. We know that dogs that are active appear to be less predisposed to developing signs of spinal disease, which means keeping them quiet all the time is also not a solution. We know that spondylosis appears to be related to strain - what is strain? Strain is a severe or excessive demand on the strength, resources, or abilities of something. This means that if we increase the strength and physical abilities of our dogs, we reduce the likelihood of of the spinal structures experiencing damaging strain.
From Canine Healthy Back Survey we know the following:
1. Discourage dogs from wrestling - these movements can be extreme and uncontrolled, with lots of twisting. Rolling over as a trick also twists the spine, and seems to be associated with back pain, so there could be a link between extreme twisting movements of the spine and back problems. If your dog does twist a lot when playing fetch it may also create some strain, although this survey did not find any association between either playing fetch or spinning in circles and back problems. It may be that the strain is related two twisting along the spine's axis rather than turn left and right.
2. If you have a really high car, consider using a ramp or steps for the dog to get in and out. Often dogs are overexcited when getting into cars, which may reduce the control and balance they use to perform such a high jump.
3. Prepare your dog for life! Ultimately, our duty as caretakers to our dogs is to help them be strong and fit enough that their daily activities do not exceed their strength and physical abilities. This is a far more empowering aproach to canine spinal health than an activity avoidance approach. Dogs that are experiencing a current pain episode may need to have some activity modification for a while, but one should not need to fear movement in a pain-free dog. Movement is what the body was designed to do!!
1. William R. Widmer, Donald E. Thrall, in Textbook of Veterinary Diagnostic Radiology (Seventh Edition), 2018
2. Canine Genet Epidemiol. 2016; DachsLife 2015: an investigation of lifestyle associations with the risk of intervertebral disc disease in DachshundsR. M. A. Packer,1 I. J. Seath,2 D. G. O’Neill,3 S. De Decker,1 and H. A. Volk1
3. Prevalence of spondylosis deformans and estimates of genetic parameters for the degree of osteophytes development in Italian Boxer dogsP. Carnier, L. Gallo, E. Sturaro, P. Piccinini, G. BittanteJournal of Animal Science, Volume 82, Issue 1, January 2004, Pages 85–92,
4. Vet J. 2011 Nov;190(2):e84-90. doi: 10.1016/j.tvjl.2011.04.008. Epub 2011 May 14.Diffuse idiopathic skeletal hyperostosis (DISH) and spondylosis deformans in purebred dogs: a retrospective radiographic study.Kranenburg HC1, Voorhout G, Grinwis GC, Hazewinkel HA, Meij BP.
5. Journal of Archaeological ScienceVolume 4, Issue 2, June 1977, Pages 183-195Spinal arthritis (spondylosis deformans) in the red fox, Vulpes vulpes, with some methodology of relevance to zooarchaeology
6. Spondylosis deformans as an indicator of transport activities in archaeological dogs: A systematic evaluation of current methods for assessing archaeological specimensKatherine J. Latham ,Robert J. LoseyPublished: April 17, 2019 PLosOne