Dog Pinched Nerve: Causes and How to Help

If your canine companion is suddenly showing signs of back pain, you might be wondering if they have a pinched nerve. But a dog pinched nerve is not like a human pinched nerve – there are some key differences you’ll need to understand if you think your dog has back pain.

Dog Pinched Nerve: What is it?

So, what is a pinched nerve? Well, the name is a little misleading, as “pinched nerves” in dogs are not quite the same as “pinched nerves” in humans. In humans, a pinched nerve refers to inflammation or pressure on the nerve root as it leaves the spine. This doesn’t often happen in dogs, but dogs get very similar symptoms from pressure on the spinal cord itself, leading to the common name being applied, even though it’s not quite correct.

What’s usually happening when a dog gets a pinched nerve is that something is pressing on the spinal cord. The cord runs inside the spine, protected on all sides by each spine bone (vertebra). But between each vertebra is a disc of cartilage (vertebral discs) that cushions the bones and helps them move together comfortably. This cartilage is a weak spot, and the most common cause of dog pinched nerves is this cartilage bulging or bursting, therefore bruising or squashing the spinal cord. Other causes of pinched nerves include tumors in the spine or blood clots affecting the spinal cord, but these are relatively rare. 

What Causes a Pinched Nerve in Dogs?

As discussed, a pinched nerve is a non-specific name, not a diagnosis, so it can mean several things to different pet parents. 

We’ve listed the most common causes of pinched nerve symptoms in dogs here:

Intervertebral Disc Disease (IVDD)

The most common cause of a pinched nerve in a dog’s back is intervertebral disc disease (IVDD), which accounts for 74% of sudden back pain in dogs, although it can also occur in the neck. [1] While all breeds can be affected by IVDD, this disease is more common in certain breeds, such as Dachshunds and Basset Hounds. This is because they have genes that cause poor cartilage (chondrodystrophy), which helps form their petite stature. Unfortunately, it makes them more prone to IVDD. 

As it’s a degenerative condition, IVDD is more likely to occur as a dog gets older. It’s rare for dogs under 2 to have this condition. Excess weight can exacerbate the condition, and certain types of exercise (like jumping) are thought to make it more likely. The lower back is the most common site for this issue.

There are two main types of IVDD, called Hansen Type I and Hansen Type II. Hansen Type I is when your dog’s discs bulge, causing a “slipped disc,” while Hansen Type II happens when the disc bursts, ejecting the thick inner jelly into the spinal canal. The symptoms are very similar with both types, and either can look like a pinched nerve.

Fibrocartilaginous embolism

In fibrocartilaginous embolism (FCE), blood flow to part of the spine is prevented due to a blockage in the blood vessels. This blockage is “fibrocartilaginous” – it’s made of material similar to that of the intervertebral discs. FCE is acutely painful and can look like a dog has a pinched nerve. Unlike IVDD, it’s more likely in large or giant breeds who do not have chondrodystrophy. 

Spinal tumors

Tumors of the spinal cord or spinal bones can cause dog pinched nerve symptoms. These are thankfully very rare. The symptoms are exactly like those of IVDD and other causes of spinal pain, so tumors would only be diagnosed with advanced imaging.

7 Symptoms of a Pinched Nerve in Dogs

If your dog develops signs of a pinched nerve, it’s essential you take them straight to the veterinarian. Here are some of the symptoms of a pinched nerve in dogs you should be on the lookout for:

Crouching or appearing stiff

Depending on whether the problem is in your dog’s neck or back will change exactly what this looks like, but dogs with nerve pain have a very stiff posture and will be hunched, trying to protect the painful area.

Unwilling to sit down or lift head

With a pinched nerve in a dog’s neck, symptoms can include holding their head low and being unwilling to lift it. If it’s in their back, they’ll be unwilling to do the stairs or sit down and may have difficulty pooping as they can’t hold the position comfortably.

Unsteady “drunken” walking or stumbling on feet

Unsteady walking, as though drunk, is a sign that dogs don’t have full control of their legs and can be a sign of a pinched nerve. Dogs may also be seen stumbling over their feet.

Weakness in limbs/dragging

When the disc problem or FCE affects the lower spine, you’ll see signs of nerve damage in your dog’s back legs. These symptoms may include weakness, their feet folding over (“knuckling”), or dragging one or both limbs due to the dog’s back legs not working. The worse the paralysis, the more urgent the problem; complete non-weight-bearing on the hind limbs is a severe sign and will usually require urgent surgery to correct.

Extreme pain

Owners often report hearing a yelp when a dog gets an FCE or IVDD. However, if you don’t witness the incident, you may not detect a yelp, so don’t rule out a dog pinched nerve if you don’t hear anything. Dogs will also show other signs of pain like panting or being aggressive when the area is touched.

Dribbling urine or unable to urinate

Being unable to urinate is another severe sign of pinched nerves in dogs. Some dogs will have an “overflow dribble,” which isn’t in their control. This is usually coupled with complete paralysis of the back legs and suggests that urgent intervention is needed.

Panting, shivering, hiding, or clinginess

Dogs with pinched nerve symptoms caused by IVDD or FCE are often anxious, as they’re in pain and nervous about being debilitated. Signs of stress and anxiety, along with any of the symptoms above, should be taken seriously.

When to See a Veterinarian

When a dog has pinched nerve symptoms, you should schedule a same-day visit with your veterinarian (the sooner, the better). If you can’t get an urgent appointment with your usual veterinarian, you should call the nearest open emergency clinic and see whether you can get an appointment there. Your dog will need pain relief and an examination; in some cases, they may also need a referral for advanced imaging (such as an MRI) and surgery to reduce the compression on the spinal cord.

Dogs with pinched nerve symptoms should see a veterinarian as soon as possible, as they are extremely painful. Some problems, especially IVDD, can also get worse if not treated. While dogs that are treated quickly can make a long-term recovery, those that are ignored can have lasting nerve damage resulting in euthanasia. 

Dog Pinched Nerve Relief: How to Help

Again, the most important thing you can do for your dog with a pinched nerve is take them straight to a veterinarian. Because dog pinched nerve symptoms can have a few causes, you’ll need to get a diagnosis before you can attempt any home treatment for dog pinched nerves. 

When your veterinarian gives you the go ahead to take your dog home, they’ll also give you home care advice. This may include keeping them confined to a crate for days to weeks to allow a full recovery or helping them urinate by expressing their bladder if they can’t do this themselves.

You’ll also need to give pain relief medications as directed. Most dogs will have several medications to help with pain. These may include sedatives like gabapentin and trazodone or different NSAIDs for dogs.

Additionally, you can ask your vet about whether the following will help:

  • Hydrotherapy, physiotherapy
  • Heat or cold therapy (i.e ice packs or warmed packs)
  • A diet to help reduce weight

Home Remedies Are Not Recommended

There are no specific home remedies that are safe to recommend for dog pinched nerve signs, as the exact cause and severity make each case unique. Instead, you should follow your veterinarian’s advice carefully and discuss your dog’s case with them.

A lot of people ask about massage for dogs with pinched nerves. You shouldn’t try massaging as relief for pinched nerves in a dog. This is because these dogs are usually in major pain, so touching the area may cause them to lash out. In addition, it’s unlikely to work since dogs don’t get the same “pinched nerves” as humans do. Their problem is usually right inside their spine, where your massage can’t reach.

Because there’s no way to tell the exact cause of your dog’s spinal pain without imaging, and they’re usually in severe pain, don’t try any remedies at home before calling the vet. Urgent veterinary care is the best way to ensure your dog’s nerves recover so they can get back to being their usual crazy selves!

Reference:

Olby, Natasha J et al. “Prognostic Factors in Canine Acute Intervertebral Disc Disease.” Frontiers in Veterinary Science. Vol. 7 596059. 26 Nov. 2020, doi:10.3389/fvets.2020.596059

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