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The essentials

  • Breeding extremes lead to health problems in dogs — Many short-legged, long-backed dogs originated for hunting or herding purposes. Exaggerating these traits can lead to significant health concerns.
  • Spinal conditions and injuries often mean a lifetime of pain — Back issues in long-backed dogs can lead to chronic pain and disability.
  • Learning how to prevent back injuries is key — Long-backed dogs have a higher risk of spinal injuries, but you can help by taking steps to prevent them.

🚨 Seek immediate veterinary attention if your dog displays signs of a spinal injury. Some injuries, particularly those resulting from trauma, may not show symptoms immediately. Take time to learn when to take a pet to the ER before an injury happens.

Long-backed dog breeds remain popular worldwide, even though they’re prone to spinal conditions and injuries. Their adorable faces and often short legs give them an undeniable cute factor. Unfortunately, genetics and body shape contribute heavily to the likelihood of back issues. 

If you’ve ever injured your back, you know how debilitating it can be. You also probably learned how to avoid hurting your back again. Choosing a long-backed dog breed means you’ll need to learn how to recognize the signs of spinal injury and how to prevent them. Let’s start by learning more about how a dog’s spine works.

Your dog’s spine

Regardless of size, a dog’s spine is made up of at least 30 small bones called vertebrae. Dogs with longer tails have even more. The vertebrae protect a vital part of the central nervous system (CNS), the spinal cord. This bundle of nerves allows signals to be sent and received to and from the brain from all over the body. The vertebrae are divided into sections:

  • 7 Cervical vertebrae that make up the neck.
  • 13 Thoracic vertebrae that extend from the shoulders to the last rib.
  • 7 Lumbar vertebrae that make up the lower spine from ribs to hips.
  • 3 Sacral vertebrae which connect the rest of the spine to the tail (or caudal vertebrae).

The spine is more than the bones themselves.  Vertebrae connect through joints made up of discs and facets. Discs are cushion-like structures between the vertebrae. They’re made up of annulus fiber (the tough outer ring) and nucleus pulposus (the jelly-like inner ring). Facet joints, filled with fluid, allow the spine to bend, flex, and support weight.


How to determine if your dog has a long back

A dog’s height measures from the ground to the shoulder. Generally, a dog’s height should equal the length of the back (from the shoulders to the base of the tail). A close look at your dog’s conformation shows if they have a long back relative to their height. Short-legged, long-backed dogs have the highest risk. Many dog breeds fall into the “most likely to suffer from spinal problems” category. While any dog can suffer from a spinal injury, there are some breeds more susceptible due to their build:


Dachshund Labrador retriever Chihuahua
Boston terrier Basset hound Carin terrier
Pug Pekingese Boxer
Corgi German shepherd Miniature poodle
Shih tzu Cocker spaniel Doberman
Maltese Lhasa apso Bichon frisé
Cavalier King Charles spaniel Golden retriever French bulldog
Beagle English bulldog

Many associate long-backed dogs with small breeds. They’re more prone to jumping on and off surfaces, thus facing repeated strain that can lead to serious injuries. Larger breeds, like retrievers and German shepherds, are also at risk due to their relatively long backs. Although their size and leg length may offer some protection, they can still develop back issues.

Why are long-backed dogs more prone to spinal conditions and injuries?

Due to genetics and anatomy, long-backed dogs are at a higher risk of spinal conditions and injuries. Certain breeds have genetic predispositions to spinal issues from selective breeding practices. The elongated spines of these dogs lack stability, making them more vulnerable to strain and injury. Together, these factors increase the likelihood of spinal problems in long-backed dog breeds.

Spinal conditions associated with long-backed dogs

When talking about disorders of the spinal column and cord in dogs , many common ones are hereditary. Hereditary diseases pass from parent to puppy. Some have genetic testing available to prevent them from spreading. However, not all breeders utilize this vital tool. 

Degenerative lumbosacral stenosis 

Degenerative lumbosacral stenosis involves lower back vertebrae pushing on nerve roots. This leads to symptoms such as hind leg difficulty, tail weakness, and incontinence. Diagnosis requires MRI or CT scans. Some dogs may improve with rest and medication, while others need surgery. It’s more common in large dog breeds like German shepherds.

Cervical spondylomyeopathy

Cervical spondylomyeopathy, aka wobbler syndrome, comes from abnormal development of cervical vertebrae, which leads to spinal cord compression. It comes in 2 forms: disc or bony-associated. Symptoms include walking difficulties, leg weakness/paralysis, and neck pain. It mainly impacts large and giant breeds. Surgery can be curative.

Hereditary canine spinal muscular atrophy (HCSMA)

There are 4 types of HCSMA . Each affects a specific breed (Brittany spaniels, German shepherds, rottweilers, and Carin terriers). It leads to progressive weakness, shaking, and muscle loss. Diagnosis involves electronic muscle testing and biopsy. There is no known cure and effective treatments remain elusive.

Degenerative myelopathy (DM)

Previously considered a large breed problem, DM has been identified in smaller breeds like corgis and pugs. They suffer nerve fiber breakdown, which leads to hind limb weakness and coordination issues. Sadly, there’s no cure, and most affected dogs need to be euthanized within 1–3 years.

Diffuse idiopathic skeletal hyperostosis (DISH)

DISH involves bony growths where ligaments, tendons, or joint capsules attach to bone. Most common in Boxers, about 4% of dogs over 1 year old show signs. Usually detected on X-rays, not all cases cause issues. Some dogs may experience spinal pain and stiffness, managed with pain relief medication as necessary. This condition is always accompanied by disc degeneration.

Spondylosis deformans

Marked by bony growths under the spinal vertebrae, spondylosis deformans are typically seen as dog’s age. Boxers, German shepherds, and flat-coated retrievers appear predisposed. While it normally doesn’t cause symptoms, some dogs may feel back pain occasionally.

Intervertebral disc disease (IVDD)

The most common spinal condition among dogs, IVDD impacts nearly every long-backed dog breed, both large and small. It involves disc degeneration that leads to spinal cord or nerve compression. Symptoms include neck or back pain, muscle weakness, and even paralysis. Treatment involves rest and medication. Severe cases may need surgery to increase the chances of recovery.

Other conditions

Some spinal conditions in dogs have nothing to do with genetics or body shape. Disease and other factors can impact a dog’s spine, as well. Some possibilities include: 

Spinal injuries common among long-backed dogs

Long-backed dogs are more prone to injury due to the shape of their bodies. Because their spine has more room to flex and bend, the likelihood of injury increases. Most spinal injuries among long-backed dogs occur from trauma or repetitive use. Symptoms of spinal injury include:

  • Physical signs of discomfort. Your dog may be shivering or shaking when a back injury occurs. They may be reluctant to move or get up. You might see unusual body positions like an arched back or pulled-in head. Your dog might refuse to bend down.
  • Mobility issues. If your dog has sustained a spinal injury, you may notice them limping, having difficulty walking, or appearing drunk (ataxia). They may lose the function of their back legs and drag them. The hind end may seem weak, stiff, or lame. Your dog may appear to be unable to coordinate their front legs with their back legs.
  • Pain-related behaviors. Clear signs of pain in dogs usually include yelping when touched or crying out when moving. Less noticeable signs may be changes in mood and personality and/or lethargy and reduced interest in activities.

Traumatic spinal injuries in dogs

Traumatic back injuries usually involve some outside source, like dog fights, dog versus car, falling from a height, or even gunshot wounds. Traumatic spinal injuries in dogs require swift intervention and diagnosis. Canine sports like flyball put extra strain on the spine and the surrounding muscles and repetitive jumping or climbing can damage parts of the spine. Dog spines aren’t equipped for this type of activity like ours.

  • Spinal fractures or dislocation. When a vertebra becomes damaged it can push on the spinal cord, causing immense pain and nerve damage. Depending on the type and severity, euthanasia may be the only option.
  • Pinched nerves. Just like us, dogs may experience pinched nerves after a traumatic event. Thankfully, this can typically be treated with rest and medication. 
  • Herniated/bulging disc. A typical symptom of IVDD, it’s also possible with traumatic injuries. Some dogs recover with rest and medications, while others require surgery. Some dogs may end up in a wheelchair to get around.

Non-traumatic spinal injuries in dogs

Some spinal injuries occur due to overexertion, sudden movements, or repetitive stress.

  • Sprains/strains. These common soft tissue injuries can affect the muscles, ligaments, or tendons in the back. They’re typically treated with rest and medication.
  • Spinal tumors. Tumors can grow in the spinal column and press on the spinal cord or nerves. They can cause different symptoms based on where and how big they are.

Diagnosing and treating spinal trauma in dogs

Veterinarians use various tools for diagnosis. Comprehensive exams and genetic testing help identify spinal issues in dogs. Imaging techniques such as X-rays, MRIs, and CT scans help with accurate diagnosis.

🚨 If your dog suffers a traumatic injury of any kind, seek immediate vet care!

Treatment for spinal conditions in dogs varies based on the diagnosis and severity of the injury. Possible treatment options include:

  • Rest. Preventing further injury through rest is essential for recovery.
  • Medication. Treating pain and inflammation helps dogs heal faster.
  • Physical therapy. This helps improve mobility and strength.
  • Surgical intervention. In severe cases, surgery may be necessary.
  • Humane euthanasia. If your dog’s suffering is untreatable, your vet may recommend this as a last act of kindness.

Your dog may require a combination of these options, depending on the diagnosis. Euthanasia is a difficult decision, but putting your dog’s quality of life first is important.  In cases where treatment poses financial challenges, economical euthanasia is a viable option.

It’s crucial to follow your vet’s recommendations. Providing appropriate care and rehabilitation optimizes your dog’s chances of recovery. Recovery from spinal injuries can be lengthy and painful, lasting weeks to months. Based on your dog’s progress, ongoing monitoring, and adjustments to the treatment plan may be necessary.

Preventing spinal trauma in long-backed dogs

Preventing spinal conditions and injuries in long-backed dogs requires understanding what can and cannot be prevented, coupled with proactive measures taken by pet owners. While some accidents and injuries are unavoidable, such as sudden trauma from falls or accidents, owners can take steps to minimize the risk of spinal issues in their long-backed companions. 

  • Provide a safe environment. Limit access to dangerous areas where falls could occur. Keep your dog on a leash when outdoors. Use pet stairs indoors to allow your dog safe access on and off furniture. Many options exist to help you help your dog stay safe.
  • Avoid strenuous activities. Restrict behaviors that put a strain on the spine, such as jumping from heights or rough play.
  • Maintain a healthy weight. Proper diet and exercise will help prevent spinal issues due to excess weight.
  • Engage in low-impact exercises. Promote muscle strength and flexibility without placing undue stress on the spine. Activities like swimming, leash walking, or gentle stretching exercises are beneficial.
  • Invest in supportive products. Look into items like orthopedic beds or specialized harnesses to reduce strain on the back.
  •  Incorporate joint supplements. Consider adding specialized dog supplements to your dog’s diet. These supplements are designed to support the joints and help with overall joint and spine health.

Regular veterinary check-ups can also aid in the early detection and management of potential spinal issues. By being proactive and attentive to your dog’s needs, you play a vital role in safeguarding your long-backed companions from spinal trauma and promoting their overall well-being.

Some spinal conditions and injuries in long-backed dogs cannot be prevented. Many dogs can live long, happy lives with successful treatment. Remember, your long-backed dog is prone to back injuries and spinal conditions because of their body shape and genetics. So, understanding the signs and symptoms is essential, along with taking steps to prevent spinal trauma.

Frequently asked questions

What are the kinds of spinal disorders in dogs?

Dogs experience 7 different spinal disorders that we know of at the time of publishing. Spinal disorders found in dogs include degenerative lumbosacral stenosis, cervical spondylomyeopathy, hereditary canine spinal muscular atrophy, degenerative myelopathy, diffuse idiopathic skeletal hyperostosis, intervertebral disc disease, and spondylosis deformans.

What are the symptoms of an unstable spine in dogs?

Symptoms of an unstable spine in dogs can vary depending on the underlying cause and severity of the instability. However, common signs may include difficulty walking, crying out in pain, and changes in posture. Consult a veterinarian if you notice any of these symptoms in your dog. They could point to a serious spinal condition that requires prompt medical attention.

How long can a dog live with spondylosis?

The lifespan of a dog with spondylosis can vary significantly. It depends on various factors, including the severity of the condition, the dog’s overall health, and the effectiveness of management and treatment.

How do I know if my dog has spinal damage? 

Detecting spinal damage in dogs involves observing changes. Watch for difficulty standing or walking, and signs of pain, including vocalization or reluctance to move. Other indicators may include loss of coordination, weakness/paralysis in the limbs or changes in behavior. If you notice any of these symptoms, take your dog to the vet immediately.

Can dogs recover from spinal injuries?

Yes, dogs can recover from spinal injuries, depending on the severity and type of injury. The promptness and effectiveness of treatment factors in, as well.

  • Mild to moderate spinal injuries. Such as strains, sprains, or mild disc herniation, may resolve with rest, medication, and physical therapy.
  • Severe cases. Severe disc herniation or spinal fractures need surgical intervention to ease pressure on the spinal cord and restore function.

Recovery may be challenging and need ongoing rehabilitation. Many dogs can regain mobility and lead fulfilling lives with appropriate treatment and care.