6 Common Back Problems in Dogs [+Signs, Causes & Prevention]

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Dogs are vulnerable to various back problems during their lifetime. Understanding common issues can help you take the best possible care of your furbaby so he can move, play, and enjoy a good quality of life.

Common back problems in dogs include:

  • Intervertebral Disc Disease (IVDD)
  • Degenerative Myelopathy
  • Lumbosacral Stenosis
  • Spondylosis
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Muscle sprain/strain

In this article, we’ll look at the common causes of back problems in dogs to help you understand their signs, causes, age of onset, prevention, and treatment options. After that, I’ll break down the diseases according to your dog’s lifecycle and provide a list of symptoms to watch for. Finally, I’ll give you some tips for prevention and general health care.

Common Back Problems

When your dog’s back isn’t healthy, it affects various functions and activities. Knowing how to recognize back problems early can make a difference in your dog’s treatment and recovery.

Intervertebral Disc Disease (IVDD)

In dogs, Intervertebral Disc Disease (IVDD) occurs when the gelatinous cushions between the vertebrae degenerate or harden and bulge against the spinal cord. 

Usually, the degenerative changes cause IVDD about 6-10 years of age.

Signs of IVDD in dogs include:

  • Back pain
  • Loss of coordination
  • Resistance to jumping on furniture/climbing stairs
  • Hind limb weakness
  • Limping or dragging back feet
  • Difficulty urinating or defecating
  • Incontinence
  • Paralysis

IVDD can be caused by a genetic condition that causes abnormal cartilage development (chondrodysplasia) or by normal wear and tear causing degeneration in the cartilage around the disc. Dog breeds with shorter legs and longer backs like Dachshunds, Shih Tzus, Basset Hounds, and Beagles are predisposed to developing IVDD.

Without treatment, IVDD can put increasing pressure on the spinal cord. Over time, your dog will become more painful and eventually experience paralysis.

To prevent IVDD in your dog, deal with a reputable breeder and choose a puppy with no familial history of chondrodysplasia. Additionally, keep your dog at a healthy weight, use ramps or stairs to help your dog get in the car or on furniture, and discourage jarring activities.

Mild IVDD can be medically managed with cage rest, anti-inflammatory drugs, and painkillers. For severe IVDD, surgical removal of the herniated discs is the treatment of choice.

Degenerative Myelopathy

With degenerative myelopathy (DM), the white matter sheath surrounding the spinal cord degenerates over time. Loss of the myelin sheath interferes with nerve impulse conduction.

DM usually affects older dogs with an average age of 9 years.

Signs of DM in dogs include:

  • Hind limb weakness
  • Ataxia
  • Dragging paws/scuffing toenails
  • Abnormal paw placement/knuckling
  • Crossing hind limbs
  • Hind limb paralysis
  • Inability to stand
  • Fecal and urinary incontinence

The causes of DM aren’t fully understood, but there is a genetic component. Commonly predisposed breeds include Boxers, German Shepherds, Chesapeake Bay Retrievers, Pembroke Welsh Corgis, Bernese Mountain Dogs, and Rhodesian Ridgebacks.

DM has no known cure, and it will continue to progress in affected dogs. However, you can help extend and improve your dog’s quality of life with medical management.

You can’t prevent DM, but you can screen puppies to see if they carry the defective gene that predisposes them to developing DM.

Medical management of DM may include physical therapy to help maintain muscle mass and the use of non-slip rugs, pet ramps, body slings, and dog wheelchairs.

Lumbosacral Stenosis

Lumbosacral stenosis, also known as cauda equine syndrome, is a spinal canal narrowing that causes nerve root compression in the abdominal or pelvic area.

While the condition can be present at birth, it usually manifests in senior dogs.

Signs of lumbosacral stenosis include:

  • Pain in lower back
  • Hind end weakness
  • Lameness
  • Muscle wasting
  • Abnormal tail carriage/tail weakness
  • Incontinence

The primary cause of lumbosacral stenosis in dogs is genetics. In small or medium breeds, it’s usually present at birth. However, when the condition affects large breeds like German Shepherds, Rottweilers, and Boxers, it develops with age. 

Without treatment, the condition will grow progressively worse and more painful over time.

As a genetically linked disease, this condition is hard to prevent. Buy a puppy with no family history of lumbosacral stenosis.

If lumbosacral stenosis symptoms include incontinence, treatment begins with bladder catheterization to restore normal bladder functions. Once the patient is stable, the treatment of choice is surgical decompression of the stenotic area.


Spondylosis is a degenerative change in the spinal column’s vertebrae that causes bone spurs to form along the edges of individual vertebrae. If they grow large enough, they may fuse with neighboring vertebrae.

The condition takes time to develop and usually affects middle-aged or senior dogs.

Although many dogs are asymptomatic, in some cases, you may notice signs like stiffness, back pain, lameness, and reluctance to climb/jump.

Spondylosis is caused by aging and degeneration. Although it can affect any dog, the condition develops more commonly in boxers and females.

If dogs aren’t painful, treatment is not needed. However, leaving the condition alone when your dog is symptomatic can cause him unnecessary pain or discomfort.

There’s no way to prevent bone spur development in your dog, but you may be able to prevent pain symptoms by keeping him at a healthy weight.

Treatment for symptomatic dogs is usually medical, with anti-inflammatory drugs, pain medications, physical therapy, and controlled exercise. If the bone spurs cause spinal cord compression, surgery is the treatment of choice.


Osteoarthritis is a condition in which the cartilage of joints degenerates over time and causes inflammation.

Osteoarthritis in the back usually surfaces in older adult and senior dogs.

Signs of osteoarthritis in dogs include:

  • Stiff or altered gait
  • Back pain
  • Excessive licking of the joints
  • Loss of mobility
  • Unusual clumsiness
  • Exercise aversion
  • Decreased range of motion

Causes of spinal arthritis can include traumatic injury,  genetics, repetitive stress, obesity, age/degenerative changes, poor conformation, or poor nutrition. Some breeds that are prone to developing osteoarthritis include Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, German Shepherds, Springer Spaniels, Rottweilers, Saint Bernards, and Bernese Mountain Dogs.

There is no cure for osteoarthritis, but you can use medical management to minimize signs of inflammation and pain in your dog.

Prevention of osteoarthritis in dogs begins with selecting puppies from family lines that have no history of the disease. Other measures include giving your dog joint supplements, maintaining a healthy weight, feeding a well-balanced diet, and avoiding stressful athletic activities.

Medical management for spinal arthritis in dogs includes anti-inflammatory and pain medications, joint supplements, dietary weight management, and physical therapy.

Muscle sprain/strain

Muscle sprains and strains in dog backs resemble a pulled or sprained muscle in humans. 

Soft tissue trauma in dogs can occur at any age.

Signs of strained muscles in dogs include:

  • Pain
  • Unwillingness to jump or run
  • Lethargy
  • Stiff gait

Causes of muscle strains or sprains can be over-exertion, moving or twisting the wrong way, or trauma.

Leaving sprains or strains untreated can prolong the time of recovery and cause your dog increased pain.

Prevention of pulled muscles in dogs includes maintaining your dog at a healthy weight, preventing overexertion, and discouraging jumping.

Treating muscle sprains or strains in your dog includes icing the affected area, anti-inflammatory drugs, exercise modification, and physical therapy.

Back Health Problems across the Lifecycle

Dogs experience back problems during various parts of their lifecycle, depending on the condition. For example, puppies can suffer a sprain or strain of the back muscles, while seniors usually manifest symptoms of osteoarthritis.

Back Health Problems in Puppies

Fortunately, back problems aren’t as common in puppies. If they are too raucous in their play, they may sprain or strain a back muscle and need supportive care. Puppies may also be born with Lumbosacral stenosis, but the symptoms usually manifest in older dogs.

Back Health Problems in Adult Dogs

Several back health problems surface in adult, middle-aged dogs. Because it’s a degenerative disease, IVDD takes time to develop and tends to manifest at or after 6 years. Likewise, the bony spurs associated with spondylosis usually appear in middle-aged adult dogs. Naturally, active adults are also susceptible to soft tissue back injuries like sprains and strains.

Back Health Problems in Senior Dogs

With multiple joint connections, backs are vulnerable to various degenerative changes and injury over time. Therefore, senior dogs may suffer from IVDD, degenerative myelopathy, symptoms of lumbosacral stenosis, and osteoarthritis.

Back Problem Signs Dog Parents Should Beware of

Many back problems are treatable or medically manageable to help your pooch enjoy a good quality of life. If you know the signs of trouble, you’ll be better equipped to care for your furbaby.

  • Back pain
  • Loss of coordination
  • Resistance to jumping on furniture/climbing stairs
  • Hind limb weakness
  • Limping or dragging back feet
  • Difficulty urinating or defecating
  • Abnormal paw placement/knuckling
  • Crossing hind limbs
  • Muscle wasting
  • Abnormal tail carriage/tail weakness
  • Stiff or altered gait
  • Excessive licking of the joints
  • Lethargy

Common causes of back problems

Many of the back problems dogs encounter stem from common causes.

  • Genetics
  • Degenerative wear and tear
  • Aging
  • Injury/trauma
  • Overexertion
  • obesity

Back Health Care Tips and Problem Prevention

Below are some health care and prevention tips to help your dog avoid back problems and enjoy a full, happy life.

  • Select your puppy from a reputable breeder and confirm it has no familial history of problems.
  • Schedule annual health exams for your dog and stay up to date on vaccines and other preventative care.
  • Supplement your dog’s diet with glucosamine, chondroitin, and other nutrients that support joint health.
  • Discourage rough play or jumping if your dog is prone to back problems
  • Use walking slings or dog wheelchairs if needed to support your dog
  • Furnish your home with non-slip rugs
  • Use pet ramps or stairs to prevent jumping on furniture or into/out of the car.

The Final Woof

Dog’s backs are prone to various problems during their lifetimes. Knowing how to recognize common issues can help you seek timely care for your furbaby if he shows signs of trouble. Although some issues like sprains and strains can affect puppies, many, like IVDD and osteoarthritis, are common in middle-aged or older dogs. If you watch for common signs, take preventative measures, and practice basic health care, you may be able to improve his quality of life.

Photo of author
Dr. Libby Guise earned her DVM from the University of Minnesota in 1994. After working in private practice in Wisconsin for two years, she joined the USDA as a Veterinary Medical Officer. In 2011, Libby came home to focus on raising and teaching her adoptive daughter. She lives in Wisconsin with her daughter, husband, and two furbabies: Charis, a lab-mix rescue pup, and Chesed, a Springer Spaniel.

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