As the name suggests, a pinched nerve is a painful situation occurring when too much pressure is placed on a nerve. While a pinched nerve can happen to any dog, some breeds are particularly predisposed to it. If your dog is less mobile, assumes an unusual posture, or appears uncoordinated, it's best to see your veterinarian, as several conditions may be triggering these symptoms. A pinched nerve isn't necessarily the culprit.
Anatomy of a dog's spinal column
Also known as the backbone, your dog's spinal column is a bony, tubular structure composed by numerous smaller bones known as vertebrae. Vertebrae are the building blocks of the spine, allowing flexibility and movement. They're separated by intervertebral discs, which keep your dog's vertebrae from rubbing together and help absorb the shock placed on the spinal column. On top of that, vertebrae protect the spinal cord, a bundle of nerves branching off the spine for the purpose of relaying information between the brain and the rest of the body.
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Damage to a dog's vertebrae
When the dog's vertebrae are aligned well and the dog's spine is flexible and in good shape, you'll see a happy and healthy animal. Problems start when, for one reason or another, the spinal cord is damaged due to severe compression, a condition referred to as myelopathy, or the spinal column is narrowed, a condition known as stenosis. Any damage to the spine may cause nerve roots to be compressed, a condition known as radiculopathy. Pinched nerves can be caused by spinal trauma or herniated discs, as well as fractures, hereditary disorders, tumors, and any other cervical conditions known for causing nerve compression.
Degenerative conditions that predispose dogs to pinched nerves
Several degenerative conditions of the spinal column predispose dogs to pinched nerves. Intervertebral disc disease, a condition often seen in short-legged dogs such as the dachshund, beagle, Shih Tzu, Lhasa Apso, corgi, French bulldog, and Pekingese, occurs when the intervertebral discs bulge and sometimes rupture, putting pressure on the nerves. Wobbler syndrome develops from herniated discs or bony malformations compressing the nerve roots in the neck area.
Affected breeds include the Doberman pinscher, German Shepherd Dog, and several other large breed dogs. Canine degenerative myelopathy, also known as chronic degenerative radiculomyelopathy, is a chronic, genetic disorder especially affecting German Shepherd Dogs older than eight years old. Dogs with degeneration aren't in pain, but have weak and uncoordinated rear legs. A visit to a neurologist may be required, who may suggest x-rays or an MRI to help diagnose the problem.
Effects of pinched nerves on dogs
You won't see or feel pinched nerves, but your dog likely will move less and have muscle spasms that can make them assume unusual postures. You also may notice weakness (especially in the back legs), limping, uncoordinated movements, loss of muscle mass, vocalizations, behavior changes, and in severe cases, some urinary incontinence or loss of bowel control. When the pinched nerve is located in the dog's neck or neck area, you may notice the effects of neck pain, including the head kept low and the reluctance to move it up and down, as well as front leg lameness. Dogs with pinched nerves further down the spine may show pain or other effects, depending on what nerves are compressed.
The need for timely treatment for your dog
If you notice any abnormal symptoms in your dog and suspect a pinched nerve, it's important to visit your DVM attention immediately to address your dog's pain. Left untreated, this condition may become more difficult to treat, not to mention the fact that dogs are often in severe pain. Treatment options vary depending on the underlying cause.
Degenerative disc diseases, such as intervertebral disc disease or IVDD, are commonly treated with anti-inflammatory drugs and muscle relaxers, along with pain medications and strict confinement or cage rest. Severe cases may require surgical intervention. Additionally, acupuncture and chiropractic treatments may be recommended by your veterinarian.
The bottom line
A pinched nerve in dogs is a painful condition that may not always show signs of pain. It can present with decreased mobility, lameness, unusual postures, behavior changes, or even loss of bowel or bladder control. There are other potentially serious conditions that can be mistaken for a pinched nerve, so a visit to a veterinarian is critical to diagnose the problem and treat it. Treatment options may include anti-inflammatories, muscle relaxers, pain medications, strict rest, or even surgical intervention.