What Exactly Are Pinched Nerves in Dogs?
So what are pinched nerves in dogs and what are the symptoms? First and foremost, let's take a lesson in basic anatomy so we can better understand how your dog may have gotten a pinched nerve in the neck in the first place.
Your dog's spinal column is composed by several overlapping small bones known as vertebrae which allow smooth movement and flexibility in the neck and back area. Between one vertebrae and another, are several disks which are meant to cushion and prevent the vertebrae from rubbing against each other.
These disks, commonly referred to as "intervertebral disks" are meant to protect the spinal cord, a cable of nerves which branch off the spine and are responsible for relaying important information between your dog's brain and the rest of his body.
From head to tail, your dog's spinal column is composed by 4 vertebral regions: cervical, thoracic, lumbar and sacral. In this article, we will be focusing on the cervical vertebrae, basically, the ones in the neck area.
Dogs have seven vertebrae in the neck region (see picture below). The function of these vertebrae is to support to head and protect the vital spinal cord. They are displayed in such a way as to form a curvy "S" which allows flexibility and movement.
Let's take a brief look at their main functions. The first neck vertebrae is known as the "Atlas" and its main purpose is to allow your dog to raise his head up and lower it down. The second neck vertebrae is known as the "Axis". This vertebrae allows the head and neck to rotate. The remaining 5 vertebrae are quite similar in structure among each other.
Problems With Herniated Disks
When all goes well and your dog's cervical vertebrae are in good shape, your dog is happy and healthy. He flexes his neck without problems and enjoys every day activities.
Problems start when for one reason or another (trauma, genetic predisposition as seen in dogs with long backs such as dachshunds, being overweight, the presence of a tumor or simply an effect of aging due to degeneration) an intervertebral disk herniates and presses on the nerve roots, special fiber bundles that come off the dog's spinal cord triggering pressure, pain and a variety of symptoms.
It's the neck version of intervertebral disk disease, except for the fact that it affects the neck rather than the spine. In the next paragraph, we will take a look at the main symptoms of pinched nerves in the neck in dogs.
Which Dogs Are More Prone to Cervical Disk Herniations?
According to veterinarian Wendy C. Brooks, cervical disk herniations tend to occur in 15% of dogs affected by disk herniation and 80% of dogs affected are dachshunds, poodles, and beagles. The most susceptible vertebrae to disk herniation appear to be the C2-C3 vertebrae.
Symptoms of Pinched Neck Nerves in Dogs
Whether your dog's cervical vertebrae pinch the the nerves in the spinal cord or compress the spinal column, you may see a variety of symptoms that may not be readily recognized or are not taking seriously. Depending of how severe the condition is, your dog's symptoms may range from being mild to quite severe. It's very important to see the vet immediately should your dog show these signs.
Dogs may manifest pain in different ways than us humans. As vocal beings, humans are prone to vocalizing their pain through an "ouch!" or by complaining.
Dogs, on the other hand, are less vocal and their pain manifestations aren't recognized. Yawning, panting, smacking lips, breathing fast and moving from one resting spot to another, may be signs your dog is in pain.
While some dogs may yelp or whine when in pain, don't take lack of vocalizations as a necessary sign that your dog is not in pain!
When my dog developed a pinched nerve in his neck, he was restless, unable to find a new position, getting up repeatedly, breathing fast, panting, lip smacking, licking and yelping when he was getting up from a sleeping position and lifting his chin. Small dogs may yelp when being picked up.
2. Stiff Neck
The neck is painful and quite stiff. Your dog will assume positions in an attempt to give relief to the neck area. He may arch his back or point his nose to the ground. You may notice tension and tremors in the muscles of the neck area.Your dog may be reluctant to move his head side-to-side or to turn around in tight spaces.
When my Rottweiler developed a pinched nerve in his neck last week, he refused to spin around (a trick he does sometimes) and he was showing me whale eyes (the white of the eyes) because he was looking at me without turning his neck.
Eating requires dogs to lower their head and this can be painful in a dog with neck pain so some dogs may back away from the food bowl or refuse to eat.
3. Changes in Walking
If your dog appears to walk as if he's drunk, that may be a sign of cervical problems. Some dogs may not clearly stumble but may appear slightly uncoordinated. Some dogs may simply walk slowly with their head kept low, others may even buckle over in their front legs as they walk and stumble.
Some dogs may limp or hold up a leg. When my dog developed a pinched nerve in his neck, we saw him once limp on his front leg for a few seconds and for a split second it appeared as if he was limping on a back leg too.
As we mentioned earlier, the spinal cord is responsible for relaying important information between the brain and the rest of the dog's body. When the nerves in this area are damaged, the nerves responsible for relaying information to the limbs stop transmitting this information.
While relatively minor spinal cord damage may just cause loss of coordination (ataxia) and a "drunken" gait, as mentioned before, significant damage may lead to paralysis and a loss of pain sensation in the limbs. According to the American College of Veterinary Surgeons, depending on the length of time pain sensation was lost, affected dogs may carry a very poor prognosis for recovery.
5. Lack of Proprioception
Proprioception may sound like a complicated term, but all it means is your dog's ability to sense the way his body is positioned. When this ability is not present, it could be indicative of a neurological condition affecting the brain's ability to relay information to the body, and a spinal cord issue may be a cause for this.
Affected dogs may be seen dragging their legs in an abnormal fashion and failing to reposition their legs as they normally would during a neurological exam. See video below for an example.
How to Treat a Dog With Pinched Nerves
Dogs with spinal problems may need different treatments. Treatment varies based on what the dog has. For instance, if the nerve is simply pinched or if it's herniated and actually ends up pressing on the spinal column causing neurological signs, treatment will be different. It may also vary based on how severe the dog's symptoms are and how promptly the owner takes the dog to the vet.
1. See Your Vet
If you suspect a spinal problem in your dog, it's vital to have your dog see your vet immediately. With certain conditions, the longer you wait to seek help the worse the prognosis, since things can progress quickly.
Your vet will likely examine your dog, move his head around and palpate his spine. He'll look for signs of pain and reluctance to turn the head. While x-rays are often done to diagnose conditions, in the case of a pinched nerve, x-rays aren't very effective in showing prolapsed discs.
A myelogram done with contrast dye is more effective. If your vet suspects a pinched nerve, he'll likely put your dog on a muscle relaxant and an anti-inflammatory drug. Some vets may prescribe corticosteroids to reduce the swelling.
When my Rottweiler got his pinched nerve, he was prescribed methocarbamol (a muscle relaxer) and meloxicam (also known as Metacam, a popular non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug). The vet wanted to originally prescribe Rimadyl, but my dog got side effects on that medication once as a puppy and I was afraid.
As much as I do not like giving my dogs NSAID's (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) unless absolutely necessary, my Rottweiler's pain was almost unbearable.
2. Get Bloodwork Done
The vet asked me if I wanted to run blood tests to check my dog's kidneys and liver before sending me home with the medications and I said "yes, absolutely." This is very important because dogs with undetected liver or kidney problems taking these meds can develop serious side effects.
Also, it's not a bad idea to get blood work done also during and afterward, especially if your dog will be on them some time.
3. Watch for Side Effects!
When your vet prescribes a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug, watch your dog for side effects! Be wary of vomiting, diarrhea, decreased appetite, bloody stools, dark, tarry stools, jaundice and increased water consumption. I would recommend going out with your dog and checking his stool every time.
If you notice anything abnormal, notify your vet immediately. My Rottweiler vomited on day 6 of taking his Meloxicam and he was to take it for 7 days. When I called the vet, she told me to stop giving it.
Thankfully, he was doing better already so it was OK. If your dog is prescribed other medications, read the leaflet carefully so to learn what to watch for and report any side effects immediately to your vet.
4. Let Your Dog Rest
Your dog will need rest to allow a scar to form over the disc material. This is the most important step as you want your dog to heal properly. If you allow exercise too soon and your dog has a herniated disk, the disk may herniate more causing the condition to worsen.
Be specifically careful not to let your dog jump on or off furniture, going up and down stairs, playing tug and letting your dog shake his toys with his head. Accompany your dog outside to potty and keep him on leash.
5. Use a Harness Instead of a Collar
When you take your dog outside to potty, make sure he's on a harness rather than a collar. The last thing you want is having a collar encircle your neck when you have neck pain.
It would be in your dog's best interest to wear the harness all the time from now on to prevent future problems. The harness will put less strain on the neck if your dog should pull.
6. Give Warm/Cold Compresses
Cold compresses can help give temporary relief on top of giving prescription medications as suggested by the vet. Veterinarian Dr. Drew suggests applying an ice pack or cold compress for about 10 minutes if you are able to locate the painful area.
Whether to use ice or a warm compress is a matter of what you are dealing with. Dr. Dan says that if the pain is due to a pinched nerve, then ice works best as it decreases the local swelling around the nerve and it helps relieve pressure, but if there are muscles spasms and tension which are commonly seen with pinched nerves, then warm compresses will feel better but it's important to cover a large area for best relief. He therefore suggests starting using ice for 10 minutes at a time, and if no relief is seen after 2 to 3 treatments, then heat may be tried.
7. Consider Chiropractic Care
Some dog owners report success with chiropractic care. Yes, there are chiropractors catering to dogs too! Chiropractic care though isn't meant to replace veterinary care or surgery; it's simply an alternate care option for chronic cases or when there are side effects from medication.
What does chiropractic care accomplish? It focuses on the alignment of the spine. It's best to play it safe and look for a certified animal chiropractor. The American Veterinary Chiropractor Association offers listings for certified chiropractors.
8. Try Acupuncture
Acupuncture is another option for dogs with disk problems. Sometimes it's used in conjunction with chiropractic care. My vet suggested that this is an option for my dog if things don't get better. She is an awesome vet that also does acupuncture.
9. See a Specialist
Unfortunately, some cases don't respond well to medications and rest. According to veterinarian Nicholas Trout, medical management was found to fail in a study and didn't work in about 33 percent of dogs.
Some dogs may respond well to rest and medications initially, then once taken off, the're back to being painful or have relapses some time later. According to the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, dogs showing neurological symptoms are the ones that are least responsive as their neurological symptoms suggest large quantities of extruded disk material pressing on the nerves. In such cases, a referral to a veterinary surgeon may be helpful so you can fully explore your options.
10. Consider Surgery for Complicated Cases
Severe cases or those that don't respond to rest and medications may necessitate surgery. The surgery is meant to to remove disc material. This is a delicate surgery as the nerve tissue is delicate. Surgeons cannot make guarantees on the outcome, but when things go well, affected dogs may improve significantly.
It's best to have the surgery carried out by a veterinary specialist such as a neurologist/neurosurgeon.
Disclaimer: this article is not to be used as a replacement for professional veterinary advice. If you suspect your dog has a pinched nerve, please see your vet for proper diagnosis and treatment.
Author: Adrienne Farricelli - certified dog trainer, former veterinary assistant, and the author of "Brain Training for Dogs."