Neck pain in dogs can often be tied to many back or nerve disorders and conditions. Some neck disorders have the possibility of causing paralysis as well as pinched nerves resulting in extreme pain throughout the body.
Atlanto-axial malformation is an uncommon condition that causes abnormal movement in the neck. The instability occurs between the first cervical vertebrae and the second vertebrae, causing compression of the spinal cord. Normally stabilized by a projection off the axis of the dens which fits into the atlas (along with other ligaments), this condition is typically caused by birth abnormalities or trauma. Trauma occurs when there is a forceful flexion of the head that causes fracture to the dens/ axis, or tearing of the surrounding ligaments. Birth defects (malformed axis/atlas/ligaments) can be triggered by mild traumas such as jumping off the couch or being jumped on by another dog. Small breeds such as Chihuahuas, Miniature/ Toy Poodles, Pomeranians, Yorkshire terriers and Pekingnese are more susceptible to these birth defects. Dogs with congenital abnormalities usually show signs at less than one year of age. Symptoms can include neck pain, incoordination, weakness, and possible paralysis from the neck down. Dogs that become paralyzed have an increased chance of fatally passing aways due to a paralysis of the diaphragm (unable to breathe). Diagnosing includes radiographs to view dorsal deviation or a tipping of the axis, CT scans, and a complete physical exam that covers symptoms and health history.
A partial dislocation of the two vertebrae is known as an AA subluxation. It happens when the link between the first (atlas) and second (axis) vertebrae becomes unstable, resulting in spinal cord compression. A set of ligaments, as well as the structure of the bones themselves, hold the bones together. A process of the axis called the dens stretches forward and fits against the atlas, helping to maintain the connection between these two bones. Trauma, inherited factors, or a combination of these two variables can induce atlantoaxial luxation. Trauma can include jumping off the couch or being jumped on by another dog. Forceful flexion of the neck in the case of trauma can injure the atlantoaxial joint. The ligaments that support the joint may be ripped, or the dens on the axis may be shattered. If the correct pressures are applied, these injuries can occur in any breed of dog at any age and is usually most common in younger, small breed dogs such as Yorkies and Chihuahuas.
The symptoms can vary depending on the severity of the case and can have either suddenly onset or slow progress over time. Symptoms of AA subluxation include neck pain, weakness, and an uncoordinated gait. Dogs may be unable to walk, breathe correctly or it may even result in death. In very severe cases, there may be complete paralysis and with this, there is often paralysis of the diaphragm where the dog is unable to breathe and usually dies before medical attention. To diagnose AA subluxation, a vet will look at the breed and age as well as their medical history, the clinical signs they are showing, and x-rays and possibly a CT scan.
All tumors come in the form of primary and secondary. Primary brain tumors originate from the tissues of the brain or membranes while secondary brain tumors originate from other cells in a tumor elsewhere that then traveled to the train. Usually, seizures are an indicator a dog might have a brain tumor and often diagnosed by an MRI or CAT scan. Dogs may also be hypersensitive to neck pain, have abnormal behavior, circling, wobbling when walking and a head tilt. Your primary vet may also refer to you a veterinary oncologist for further examination and treatment options.
Cervical Spondylomyelopathy is often referred to as “wobblers syndrome” and is a condition in which there is chronic instability of the vertebrae at the base of the neck and poor transmission of nerve signals between the body and the brain. It’s a condition of the spine that takes place in the neck. Affected dogs may have a variety of morphological issues with their neck bones. The intervertebral discs, which deteriorate and protrude against the spinal cord, are most commonly affected by these bone deformities. Instability of the spine in the neck area, as well as reactive alterations in the facet joints, are common complications. These modifications may cause the spinal cord to be compressed even more. Furthermore, differing neck positions may have an impact on spinal cord compression. As a result, recurrent damage to the spinal cord may occur when afflicted dogs move their necks and affected dogs may experience muscular spasms in the neck. Giant breeds such as Danes are more predisposed. The clinical signs vary based on the severity of the disease but the most common is a ‘wobbly’, uncoordinated gait with a tendency to stumble and scuff their feet, along with neck pain and could possibly progress to complete paralysis of all four limbs. If a vet suspects a dog of having Caudal Cervical Spondylomyelopathy, they will conduct an MRI.
Dermatitis is the irritation of the skin often caused by mites, mange, allergies, seborrhea, fissures, or injury. This can result in intense itching, irritation, and pain for the affected dog. An infection can even occur if the dog has itched enough to break skin leading to the bacteria from their nails getting into the wound. Clinical signs you want to look out for include hot spots, hair loss, gastrointestinal discomfort, flatulence, red and raised skin, inflammation, greasy skin, self-mutilation from itching, and diarrhea. Dogs who are affected may also be sneezing, have watery eyes, scratch at the affected area, and have compulsive licking. While any dog can get dermatitis, there are certain breeds that are more prone to this condition including bulldogs, cocker spaniels, old english sheepdogs, poodles, golden retrievers, most terriers, dalmations, and irish setters. These breeds should be examined more often for the symptoms. If this goes untreated, there are risks of dermatitis spreading to other parts of the body, developing bacterial infections or yeast infections, and possibly even deafness in the case of chronic ear infections. The most common areas this can occur are the neck, groin, armpits, paws, and ears. To diagnose, a vet will take into consideration the symptoms the dog has presented and may run an intradermal allergy testing or a blood test to find the exact cause. Treatment varies per the cause.
Diffuse Idiopathic Skeletal Hyperostosis (DISH) is a form of arthritis and while it can be found in any breed, it’s most prevalent and common in purebred Boxers. DISH occurs in the soft tissues, including the ventral longitudinal ligament and other bone attachments such as ligaments, tendons, and capsules, which become calcified and ossified in which both the axial and appendicular skeletons are affected. DISH in dogs is distinguished by widespread new bone development that takes place as fluid ossification along with the ventral and lateral aspects of the vertebral column due to their trabecular pattern. Clinical signs of a dog suffering from DISH include spinal pain, stiffness, and neurological symptoms in the advanced stages but not all dogs present painful symptoms. A vet may do spinal radiography and possibly advanced imaging if neurological signs are present in the dog. Unfortunately, this disease does not have a cure.
Discospondylitis is a bacterial or fungal infection of the intervertebral disks and the adjacent vertebral bones which can occur in one location of the spinal column or in multiple locations. There are multiple causes for this disease which are either blood-borne spread, direct contamination or migration of a foreign body towards the spinal cord. A dog may be more predisposed if they have chronic infection or immunosuppression through either medication or another underlying condition but it’s more common in large breed dogs with Great Danes, German Shepherds, Boxers, Rottweilers, Doberman Pinschers, and English Bulldogs being the highest risk. Signs a dog may have Discospondylitis often start slowly and continuously progress over time with the first clinical sign usually being back pain. Dogs who suffer may be acting stiff and not wanting to jump on or off furniture and acting like they are in pain while doing certain movements or being touched in certain spots. With the progression of the condition, more signs become apparent such as muscle weakness and in severe cases, paralysis. Most dogs who are affected also show signs of decreased appetite, lethargy and weight loss. Discospondylitis is usually diagnosed via spinal x-rays as the changes in the bony vertebrae can be seen. But, these changes usually can’t be seen for about 2-6 weeks after clinical signs start to be seen. Advanced imaging such as CT scans may also be required. If Discospondylitis is suspected, the vet may perform tests to confirm the infection such as blood cultures, urine cultures, and testing for an infection called brucellosis. A cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) tap may also be requested as well as a neurologist, wanting to obtain a culture directly from the infected disk.
Meningitis is the inflammation of the membranes that cover the brain and spinal cord. While it is rare in dogs, several breeds such as Beagles, German Shorthaired Pointers and Bernese Mountain dogs are most commonly diagnosed. Infectious and immune-mediated factors can cause meningitis. These include bacterial, viral, fungal, and protozoal infections that can reach the central nervous system via the sinuses, vertebrae, inner ear, or via bloodstream. When a case is non-infectious, the cause is due to the body attacking its own tissues. Dogs will commonly experience steroid-responsive meningitis (an immune-mediated condition), which is seen in early adulthood. Clinical signs include pain (can be severe), fever, and a rigid neck. Dogs may also refuse to eat and become lethargic. In some cases, meningitis can occur with encephalitis (inflammation of the brain) that presents neurological signs. These include seizures, circling, pacing, paralysis, blindness, and loss of consciousness. Diagnosing includes a physical exam, lab tests, and a cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) tap to accurately diagnose meningitis. Treating meningitis depends on the underlying cause.
A tiny fragment of cartilage enters the circulatory system of the spinal cord and restricts blood flow to the spine, causing a fibrocartilaginous embolization (FCE). Incoordination and weakness/paralysis symptoms appear quickly and may worsen over the next six to twelve hours. The indications are stable to improving after the first 12 hours. It’s usually associated with middle-aged large and giant dogs and is often caused by mild trauma or vigorous exercise. It often affects the middle part of the spinal cord, affecting only the hind limbs, but it can occur in the neck affecting all four limbs. Signs of FCE in dogs include acute pain for a short period of time, and nervous system deficits in one side of the body (but can occasionally affect both sides). To diagnose FCE, a vet will look at the clinical signs, consider the dog’s medical history, as well as a neurologic exam, and spinal cord imaging.
Granulomatous meningoencephalitis (GME) is a central nervous system (CNS) inflammatory disorder that affects both dogs and cats. Meningoencephalitis is a form of meningitis and the most frequent cause of inflammatory disease of the canine central nervous system is GME, which is likely second only to encephalitis caused by the canine distemper virus. GME causes an inflammation that acts much like cancer in the way that it spreads. The inflammation process includes immune system cells infiltrating natural tissues. Small breed, middle-aged to young dogs are the most commonly affected but it can happen in any dog of any size and age. Symptoms include seizures, pacing in circles, tilted head, neck pain, stumbling, blindness, listlessness, facial anomalies, and exhaustion. All of the listed symptoms can be either chronic or acute in their onset. GME is currently not curable and a lifelong ailment that requires medication to manage.
There are three types of GME:
Hemivertebra is a disease in which the vertebrae are deformed in either that it is fused or wedge-shaped which causes a twisting of the spine. This congenital condition can happen to either just one or multiple vertebrae and is considered a congenital disease. While it initially sounds like it would be extremely painful to have a spine in that condition, it doesn’t always cause an issue for the affected dog. It is usually dependent on if the spinal cord is being compressed or if there is a weak section of the spinal column. If the abnormality is right at the tail then it also doesn’t usually cause a problem but will cause significant problems if located in other parts of the spine. Breeds that have Hemivertebra of the tail are those breeds with a “curly q tail” or “screw tail” such as Pugs, French Bulldogs, and other brachycephalic breeds. Dogs may not always experience symptoms but if severe, they may experience weakness of the hind limbs, the inability to walk, pain, or incontinence. Signs often present in puppyhood and progressively get worse until they plateau around 9 months of age once the spine has stopped growing. If suspected, a veterinarian will use radiographs as it’s fairly simple to see in an x-ray but they may also use myelograms, CT scans, or MRIs to detect spinal cord compression.
Intervertebral Disc Disease happens to be the most common spinal disorder in dogs and is considered a degenerative disorder. Intervertebral discs are the cushions in the space between the spinal vertebrae and are subject to a variety of degenerative conditions and forces which prevent bulging or splintering over time. While this is a disease that often occurs in older dogs, certain breeds are more at risk for developing IVDD at a younger age including chondrodystrophic dogs (those who have disproportionately short and curved limbs such as dachshunds and basset hounds) and crosses of those breeds. IVDD also most commonly occurs in the thoracolumbar (mid-spine) and cervical (neck). Dogs with spinal IVDD generally suffer from neurologic dysfunction, such as fatigue, lameness, etc., and pain while those with cervical IVDD suffer from extreme pain on its own.
IVDD falls under two categories:
Meningoencephalomyelitis of Unknown Origin refers to the inflammation of the brain and surrounding fluid/tissues that cannot be fully analyzed (through histopathological analysis). It’s typically caused by an underlying autoimmune condition. Characterized into one of three types, each type differs in specific brain and spinal cord changes observed at the cellular level. These types are: granulomatous meningoencephalomyelitis (GME), necrotizing meningoencephalitis (NME), and necrotizing leukoencephalitis (NLE). All are caused by an abnormal immune response directed at the dog’s own tissues. Seen in both large and small breeds, most affected dogs are over 6 months old. Clinical signs involve seizures, muscle tremors, blindness, dizziness/head tilt, and falling. Some dogs will exhibit pain, paralysis, and walking in circles. Diagnosing includes a physical exam, bloodwork, MRI, and a CSF analysis.
Meningomyelitis is the inflammation of the sheath that covers the nerves of the Central Nervous System. Differing from meningitis, meningomyelitis also affects the nerves which arise from an infection, trauma, or autoimmune reaction. Symptoms include pain leading to the back of the spinal column, dilated/constricted pupils, trouble swallowing, fever, reduced reflexes, and trouble urinating/defecating. A vet will typically conduct a physical exam along with a CBC blood count and urinalysis. A spinal tap can also be conducted to check for infection, with an ultrasound showing evidence of cancer or possible injury.
Myotonia Congenita is a rare disease that affects the muscles by causing muscle fibers to contract continuously which causes dogs to experience abnormal muscle stiffness and difficulty getting up. The disease is painful and is a result of chloride channel malformations in dogs. Clinical signs to look out for include muscle stiffness, an enlarged tongue which makes it difficult to swallow, craniofacial structure anomalies, furrowing on several muscles when they are struck, muscle stiffness, and a gait that resembles a bunny hop. Symptoms usually present themselves when dogs are a few weeks old. Diagnosis is done through genetic testing, clinical signs, EMG, and muscle biopsies.
Osteoarthritis, also known as Degenerative Joint Disease (DJD), affects both dogs and humans alike and is the most common form of arthritis affecting nearly a quarter of a million dogs worldwide at any given time. It is a progressive, chronic joint condition marked by the weakening of joint cartilage, thickening of the joint capsule, and the forming of new bone around the joint (osteophytosis), both of which contribute to pain and limb dysfunction. The majority of OA in dogs is caused by developmental orthopedic diseases including cranial cruciate ligament disease, hip dysplasia, elbow dysplasia, OCD, and patella (knee cap) dislocation. In a small percentage of dogs, OA develops for no apparent reason and is linked to genetics and age. Bodyweight, obesity, exercise, and diet are all factors that contribute to osteoarthritis. Symptoms of osteoarthritis itis in dogs are fairly noticeable and include stiffness, limping, difficulty standing, not wanting to run or jump, weakness, muscle atrophy irritability, weight gain, vocalizing when touched, and incontinence. Unfortunately, the damage caused by OA is irreversible but treatment plans help reduce pain and improve quality of life.
Osteogenesis Imperfecta is also known as brittle bone disease. Osteogenesis Imperfecta is essentially the inability of the body to produce the collagen protein which provides elasticity to the bones. Because of this, affected dogs’ bones lack the ability to withstand impact and pressure causing them to easily break and fracture. Signs of Osteogenesis Imperfecta have reduced bone density, severe joint pain as well as bone and teeth fractures as affected dogs don’t have the Type 1 collagen needed. Other symptoms include difficulty walking, loose joints, stunted growth, weak tendons and muscles, and malformation of bones. They also present joint pain. There’s, unfortunately, no treatment for this condition but vets may prescribe pain medication to help. The occurrence of multiple bone breaks as well as x-rays can give a definitive diagnosis of osteogenesis imperfecta. Blood tests may also be run to see if the levels of vitamin D, phosphorus, calcium, and parathormone are abnormal.
Osteosarcoma is a bone tumor that is malignant and resembles human pediatric osteosarcoma. Limbs are the most often affected but it can still affect other bones like the jaw, hips, pelvis, ribcage, and skull. It's even possible for it to arise in non-bony tissue like mammary glands and muscles. It’s more often found in large and giant breed dogs such as Great Danes, Rottweilers, and Irish wolfhounds. This disease can be quite painful in the joints and lameness is often presented in affected dogs. Pain medication may be given to help with joints and lameness but may only work for about one to two weeks. Swelling of the bone at the tumor site can be observed at this point and is sometimes sore, swollen, and hot to the touch. Amputation is often the recommended treatment to prevent cancer from spreading but seeing an oncologist is recommended since it can still spread.
Prostatomegaly, which is an enlarged prostate, is a disorder reserved for male dogs and is more common in dogs that are not neutered and more so over the age of 8. The prostate gland sits between the bladder and rectum and produces prostatic fluid which is regulated by the dog’s testosterone. A dog who has an enlarged prostate will spend more time than usual urinating and only produce a thin stream of urine, which occasionally may have blood in it. Other signs a dog may have an enlarged prostate include pain while walking, pain while urinating or defecating, ribbon-like stools, constipation, and just general signs of pain. It’s often benign but can easily increase in severity and become life-threatening without veterinary intervention. To determine whether your dog has an enlarged prostate, a vet will palpate the prostate through the abdominal wall or via rectal exam in an attempt to physically feel if it’s enlarged. An x-ray or ultrasound may also be necessary. There are also many other tests to determine the cause of the prostate enlargement as there are numerous diseases that can cause it. There are three main causes of an enlarged prostate:
Rheumatoid arthritis in dogs is very similar to that in humans and the diagnosis criteria is very similar, just adapted for dogs. It’s an immune-related arthritis targeting the cartilage in the joints. Multiple joints are often affected at once and dog pain presents lameness from the pain. Symptoms may include recurrent UTIs, lameness, joint swelling, fever limb atrophy, joint pain, tonsillitis, and inability to walk. The causes of Rheumatoid arthritis aren’t exact but since it’s immune-related, some possible causes could be a genetic predisposition, digestive disease, or cancer. Because Rheumatoid arthritis is not common for dogs and the symptoms can vary greatly, it can be difficult to diagnose. The most common symptoms, such as lameness, is a common symptom in many other disorders and they can come and go. Radiographs are usually the most effective way to determine a diagnosis to see the swelling and trouble in the joints. The vet may also opt to do a biopsy of the tissue to test for inflammation.
Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever is a tick-borne illness that’s caused by an intracellular parasite known as rickettsia rickettsii. American dog tick, wood tick, or brown dog tick infected with the disease are the culprits that transmit it to the dog. An unfed tick can take up to 10 hours to affect a dog or a fed tick can take only 10 minutes which is why it’s always so important to remove ticks properly as soon as you see them. Dogs that have been bitten by an infected tick may show the following signs: pain in the abdomen or joints, lethargy, diarrhea, cough and fever, nosebleed, enlarged lymph nodes, reduced appetite, nose or eye discharge. Vomiting, lameness in the limbs, and swelling in the legs or face. Clinical signs can range from mild to severe or life-threatening. A vet will consider the clinical signs and then run diagnostic tests, including basic blood tests, urinalysis, and x-rays. In a blood test, they will look for low numbers of red blood cells (anemia) and platelets, or abnormal complete blood count (CBC) results, or white blood cell counts.
Spina Bifida is a rare congenital abnormality in which the vertebrae of the spinal column is incomplete due to something going wrong with the fusion of the vertebral arches when embryonic development is occurring. This causes an absence of vertebral arches or the presence of a cleft in the middle of vertebral arch. Breeds can be predisposed to this condition with the most notable being English Bulldogs and other “screw tail breeds”. The disease can be minor and more significant depending on the severity. Clinical signs for more severe cases include limb weakness, paralysis, incontinence, lack of coordination and the Skin may be dimpled at the location where the defect is present. Affected dogs start showing signs in puppyhood. This spinal disorder can be seen via an x-ray when a dog is laying on their back. In more severe cases with significant neurological defects and pain, there is a very poor prognosis for affected dogs.
Spinal tumors are often uncommon in dogs but when they occur, can be debilitating depending on the location of the tumor. They are often slow-growing and 90% of spinal tumors occur in large dogs. They can progress over a span of weeks or months. Spinal tumors may either affect the bones of the vertebral column or come about from the neural tissue in the spine. If a dog is suspected to have a spinal tumor, veterinary intervention is critical to avoid irreversible progression. It can be difficult to suspect if your dog has a spinal tumor as some dogs don’t even display any symptoms in the early stages. Symptoms of a spinal tumor in dogs in general pain, changes in their activity level and how they act during activity, lethargy, reluctance to eat or drink, difficulty standing or laying down, weak limbs, neurological changes such as depression, trouble urinating/defecating or even sudden paralysis. If a vet thinks that your dog may have a spinal tumor, diagnosis often includes x-rays of the chest, a biopsy of the tumor, urinalysis, ultrasound, bloodwork, and/or CT Scan and/or MRI.
Spondylosis deformans is a noninflammatory disease that impacts the spine's vertebral bones and is distinguished by the appearance of bony spurs or osteophytes along the margins of the bones. A single bone spur can form on the spine; however, it is more typical for several bone spurs to form in various areas along the spine. In dogs, Spondylosis Deformans is most common in the lower back vertebrae. Age, injury, or a genetic disposition to bone spurs are the most common causes of these growths. Some dogs may not show any clinical signs but the bone spur may still be able to be physically felt by the owner. Affected dogs may also have a stiff spine and restricted movement. If those spurs fracture, it could cause pain in the dog as well as cause them to become lame along with neuromuscular signs associated with damage to the spinal cord or spinal nerves. Usually, the signs that are present are dependent on the location of the bone spurs along the spine. An x-ray of the spine can be used to diagnose Spondylosis Deformans but it could also be stumbled upon accidentally if x-rays are being taken for another reason.
Tetanus toxemia (tetanus) is a serious condition in which a toxin or poison blocks the nerve signals and creates severe contractions of muscles. Tetanus comes from a specific bacteria clostridium tetani bacteria, which lives in the stomach of cows and horses. Pets come into contact with the bacteria through soil which then enters the dog’s body via a cut or puncture wound. Once inside, the bacteria multiplies and releases a strong nerve toxin once they die. This toxin then triggers muscle spasms, lockjaw, and dehydration. Symptoms may appear weeks after contact and can include a stiff neck and jaw, rigid legs, fever, drooling, pain when touched, muscle spasms, abnormal facial movements, a stiff tail, a swollen face, and difficulty breathing. Other symptoms can include dehydration, difficulty eating/drinking, and constipation. Large breeds, puppies, and dogs who spend most of their time outside are susceptible to contracting tetanus. Most of the time vets will conduct a physical exam to diagnose the condition that include lab tests (chemistry profile, blood count, and urinalysis) as well as an electromyography, which records the electrical activity of the muscles.
SRMA occurs when the immune system inappropriately attacks the meninges (membranes that surround the spinal cord and brain). Categorized as an immune disease, SRMA symptoms include fevers, yelping due to cervical pain, a choppy gait in all four limbs, as well as an unwillingness to move the neck. Most commonly seen in dogs between 6-18 months of age, the most affected breeds include Boxers, Bernese Mountain Dogs, Beagles and Weimaraners. A cerebrospinal fluid tap is used to diagnose and identify large levels of white blood cells (called neutrophil) along with MRIs/radiographs and blood tests to rule out possible infection.
Syringohydromyelia is a term used to describe the fluid-filled cavities that develop within the spinal cord that cause an abnormal sensation in affected dogs. Dogs with Syringohydromyelia tend to have an underlying condition called chiari-like malformation (CLM) that results in the brain being too large for the smaller-sized skull. This leads to crowding of the back portion of the skull and eventual obstruction of the flow of cerebrospinal fluid that envelopes the brain and spinal cord. Typical symptoms include an altered sensation at the back of the head and neck with pain, excessive scratching, crying out when jumping/defecating, a sensitivity to touch near the shoulder, ear, neck, and incessant face rubbing. Several breeds can be affected including Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Chihuahua, Yorkshire Terrier, Maltese, Brussels Griffon and Staffordshire Bull Terrier (unusual, because this is not a toy breed). MRI imaging is typically used to diagnose severity.
Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) is an immune-mediated disease in which a dog’s immune system begins to attack its own tissue. Essentially, the dog’s body produces antibodies to antigens that are found in its body systems and tissues. Some breeds have a greater predisposition to SLE such as medium to large dogs that are over five years of age. This includes the Shetland sheepdog, Old English sheepdog, Beagle, German shepherd, Irish setter, Nova Scotia duck tolling retriever, Poodle, Collie, and Afghan hound. Signs of SLE can peak and slow over a period of time, with signs increasing as the disease progresses. These include lameness that moves from limb to limb, lethargy, fever, enlarged spleen, enlarged lymph nodes, ulcers at mucocutaneous joints (lips), muscle pain (or atrophy), skin abnormalities (such as thinning or loss of hair, ulcers, redness). Factors such as genetic, physiologic, and environmental elements can increase SLE development.