solving Tom’s chronic back pain

  • Lesson from Tom: If a dog is experiencing back or leg pain, the first diagnosis from a vet may not be correct. Don’t only look for disease, pay attention to play habits and if there are repetitive movements that may be causing strain or muscular injury. Alternative medicine treatments and reducing repetitive intense movements (such as jumping) can solve the problem.
  • Tom says “I love to chase or jump for the ball! And I am really good at it!”

Story: When Tom was a youngster I would play a jump and catch game with him and he would learn mouth-eye coordination. This game took various forms. I would throw a small treat in the air and have him practice catching it. Tom believed that the sooner the treat hit the inside of his mouth the better, so he was motivated to develop this catching skill. We would practice everyday until Tom became an expert at catching small amounts of food thrown to him from varying distances. This play contributed to his remarkable agility to catch airborne objects, such as balls and frisbees.

A variation on this game was for me to hold a stick or other object at shoulder height in my hand and have him jump up and grab it with his mouth. Being that he is only as tall as my knee height, this was a considerable leap. He concerned himself with grabbing the object, careful not to bite my hand in the meantime. This game involved a technique of twisting his body in midair in order to grab the object from underneath.

Years later we noticed a few behavioral things about Tom that he had not exhibited before. He would sometimes hobble up the stairs, like an old man. Often he did not like his back being touched and would get especially angry if we touched the thighs of his hind legs. We began to grow concerned and mentioned it to our vet Michael who speculated that it could be early onset arthritis. Michael put him on a natural supplement which contained glucosamine sulphate and devil’s claw. Tom seemed to improve. However, Tom was only 3 years old, so the possibility that his condition would develop into a debilitating state later on was disturbing.

Time went by and Tom eventually developed different behavioral concerns. He was reluctant to jump up into the truck or onto the bed, and he would sometimes stop and look worried after chasing a ball. The vet suggested we have a back x-ray to see if it was in fact arthritis.

The x-rays showed negative for arthritis, but between one set of vertebrae there was a smaller space than the rest. Michael said this could indicate a compressed disc, a chronic condition that would cause extreme pain and get worse over time. He suggested we see a physiotherapist at Canada West Veterinary Specialists. We took Tom there and the vet talked to us about developing his ‘core’ strength over a program of treatments. The vet didn’t seem to be interested in Tom so much as the program of treatment. I had a hard time believing that he needed more ‘core’ strength. We didn’t go back to Canada West.

After thinking about it some more, I suggested acupuncture to Michael. He thought this was a good idea and referred us to Mosquito Creek Veterinary Hospital where we saw a lovely vet named Tonya Khan. She combined the needles with a mild electrical current to release any muscle spasms. She also suggested liver support (his injury was along the liver meridian) in the form of milk thistle or dandelion herbal supplements. These treatments had a good effect on Tom and he seemed to have less pain, more mobility, and less grumpiness.

At the same time, our regular veterinary clinic was adding a chiropractor, David Lane, to their staff. David diagnosed that Tom did not have a compressed disc per se, but may have a chronic muscle spasm tightening the muscles around the spine and contributing to the lessening of space between the vertebrae. He advised us not to chase the ball every day and definitely not use the ‘chuck-it’ for throwing. He explained that dogs will chase at top speeds, even if they’re in pain, and that this would only contribute to prolonging the condition. I recalled the jumping game that Tom and I played and recalled how he would twist his body around the area in his spine corresponding to the spasm.

The chiropractic sessions, and limited ball chasing and jumping, had a good effect on Tom who seemed to get better and better.

We added some swimming therapy at Aquapaws which was close to home, and treatments from a massage therapist, Nicola Way (Vancouver Animal Massage). Tom loved Nicola, but did not like her touching his back nor his hind legs. I  distracted him with treats while she massaged these areas. Over the weekly sessions, Tom relaxed and she was eventually able to work on the spasms.

Tom improved dramatically over the months. Finally David suggested that Tom not come back unless he exhibits pain; Nicola suggested we call her in a few months if Tom’s stiffness relapses. She showed us how to massage the small muscles on either side of the spine, and the area in his thighs that were bothering him. Tom seemed happier and could once again jump into the truck. He stopped climbing the stairs like an old man.

Reflecting on this experience, I now believe that Tom’s chronic muscle spasms in his lower back and legs and mid-spine area caused him years of pain. Thankfully, the pain had nothing to do with arthritis, but was treatable and disappeared over time. We continue to limit the ball chasing, and we definitely don’t play the jump and twist game anymore! Tom is happy and relaxed, and an amazingly agile and athletic canine.

From this experience I learned to listen to Tom when he exhibits behavioral symptoms such as grumpiness and growling at certain touches. Also, I learned that the first, or even second, diagnosis by a vet may not be correct. Tom was remarkably strong and steadfast given the pain he must have had on a day-to-day basis. He was patient as we worked through the problem. He showed us, almost immediately, when we identified treatments that would help him.

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