Chiropractic care is a holistic approach that incorporates the physical and structural wellness of animals, as well as their systemic health. Chiropractic doesn’t replace traditional veterinary medicine and surgery, but provides an alternative method of care, especially for chronic problems or when side effects of medications warrant another approach. Chiropractic focuses on the health and proper functioning of the spinal column and nervous system, and works well when combined with acupuncture.
My favorite way to help the spine is through Upper Cervical Alignment. I trained with Dr. Sherry Gaber in October, 2013 and prefer to try to reset the spinal alignment through this gentle method of non-forced adjustments of the atlas and occiput. Since the nerves flow from the brain, occiput and atlas to the rest of the body, sometimes immediate results can occur. Otherwise I use gentle, very low force adjustments people cannot see unless they’re paying very close attention.
The spinal column of the dog and cat is a complex structure made of bones, ligaments, muscles and nerves. The spine provides many crucial functions of the body including a framework of support, muscle attachments and protection of the central nervous system and internal organs. There are also important blood vessels and lymph tracts near the spine.
The bones of the spinal column are called vertebrae. Each vertebra contains a portion of the nervous system called the spinal cord. The spinal cord passes through the center of each vertebra. Nerves branch off the spinal cord and exit between two vertebrae, which then travel to all muscles and organs of the body. There are approximately 160 joints in the spinal column of the dog or cat. Numerous muscles are attached to the vertebrae, enabling the spinal column to flex and extend. When the body is working well, the muscles, ligaments and tendons bear the brunt of concussion and trauma, resulting in less stress on the spine itself. When an animal is older, weaker, or has undergone surgery or experienced illness, the muscles weaken and cause the dog or cat to “hang” from the ligaments and vertebra directly. This puts them at risk for intervertebral herniation or other spinal diseases.
Dogs and cats have seven cervical vertebrae (neck bones), thirteen thoracic vertebrae (rib attachments), seven lumbar (lower back), three sacral (pelvis) and a varied amount of coccygeal vertebrae (tail bones). The craniosacral region is located just behind the skull at C1-C2, and at the end of the spinal column at the sacrum. It’s the sympathetic part of the autonomic nervous system associated with stress, adrenal overload and the American way of life. The parasympathetic nervous system is related to yin, rest and digestive patterns and is controlled by nerves arising in the thoracolumbar spine at T13-L1.
Some common problems with the spines of dogs are intervertebral herniations of different types. One in four Dachshunds develop IVH, especially when overweight, if suffered physical trauma, or are fed a diet deficient in antioxidants and minerals. Cocker Spaniels and Beagles get a type-four disc disease problem that’s more chronic and ongoing, but with less severe symptoms. Bulldogs, both English and French, often get complete disc herniation symptoms that respond well to gentle chiropractic and acupuncture. It’s perfectly safe to have chiropractic adjustments during an active disc disease process, as long as the technique is gentle and the practitioner is skilled. I like to use acupuncture – and especially electro-acupuncture – on each side of the disc herniation. Discs most commonly herniate at the junctions between cervical and thoracic regions at C7-T1, and thoracic and lumbar (most common) at T13-L1.
Many times, when a veterinarian is unable to make a specific diagnosis related to a dog’s or cat’s spine, he or she will call it intervertebral disc disease. This just means there’s a spinal nerve or segment that has some chronic pain, either from a protruding disc or other inflammatory causes. These types of cases are often my most successful.
Sometimes dogs with neck pain will shake or tremble, and often have difficulty lowering their head to eat or drink because of reduced range of motion in their necks. Dogs that wear collars and receive repeated tiny jerks from leash corrections are prone to osteophyte or calcium build-up, as the body tries to protect the neck from chronic damage by remodeling bone. This is why front attach harnesses are generally safer for dogs. Cats usually have a very healthy spine that has more built in flexibility than dogs – but with trauma and age, they can have can also have symptoms that are usually in the lower back region.
Symptoms of Neck and Back Pain
- difficulty jumping up on a chair or extending (stretching) the back
- a crooked walk
- short striding on one hind leg
- inability to elevate the tail
- difficulty getting in and out of a litter box (instead eliminating on the floor next to the litter box)
- anal gland problems
- licking the fur on each side of the spine without a history of skin allergies or fleas
- shaking or trembling
- difficulty lowering head to eat or drink
Chiropractors use the term subluxation to describe a specific problem or disease of the spinal column. A subluxation is defined as a misaligned vertebra that’s stuck or unable to move correctly. When movement between two vertebrae is restricted, the dog or cat won’t have total flexibility of the spine, which results in stiffness, resistance and lack of ability. Subluxations also cause problems in the nervous system, especially at areas where the nerves exit between two vertebrae, thus blocking the communication between the brain and cells of the body. Subluxations may be pictured as pinching off or altering the nervous system’s flow of information.
Every movement from the simple wag of a tail to the ability to catch a Frisbee requires a constant synchronization of muscles in contraction and relaxation. If proper nerve messages to muscles are obstructed, the animal will become clumsy and/or unable to jump into a car or onto a couch. He or she is more likely to seem to misjudge the curb, or stumble around corners that previously weren’t a problem. These symptoms can be related to a proprioceptive deficit and are often the first unidentified symptom of a subluxation or chiropractic issue. Nerve pressure from subluxations can create varying degrees of pain. This may lead to a pet that sleeps excessively to avoid pain associated with movement. Pets often become more energized and sleep less following an adjustment because of the absence of pain.
Subluxations in the spine may also cause the dog or cat to compensate in movement or posture. The show dog may not be able to cock his head just right, so he lowers it slightly. The cat might jump off more with the left hind leg than the right one, which over time changes the muscular structure of the hind legs, thus creating an imbalance. When the spine is not functioning correctly in one area, stress is placed on other vertebral joints as a means of compensation. Secondary subluxations can occur in other areas of the column, which further complicates the situation.