Signs That Your Dog is Suffering From Spinal Problems

If a dog begins pacing late in life, it may be a sign of spinal problems.


[Updated July 17, 2017]

Bogey, my 15-year-old Australian Shepherd-mix walks funny. He paces, moving his left legs and his right legs together in the same direction when he walks. Instead of moving in the standard gait pattern of the canine walk, where the dog’s diagonal legs move nearly in unison, Bogey shuffles along like a little old man cross-country skiing down to the mailbox.

He hasn’t always paced. I can’t remember exactly when he first began adopting the pace, but it’s been a few years. When I finally noticed it, I attributed the eccentric gait to his mellow, ambling temperament, and his ripe old age of nearly 15. Then I learned better.

In a normal walk pattern, each of the dog’s legs move individually in a four-beat gait, with the diagonal pairs of legs moving nearly together. For example, the left hind and the right front legs move forward almost together, with the left hind paw landing a fraction of a second before the right front paw; then the right hind leg goes forward closely followed by the left front. If each footfall of the paws on the ground made a noise, you’d hear a nearly constant, even rhythm: 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4.

pacing dalmatian

However, many dogs adopt a “pacing” walk, where the lateral pairs of legs move together, with the lateral pair of right hind and right front moving forward and backward at the same time, and the left hind and left front the moving together opposite them. As in a normal walk, the hind foot may strike the ground a fraction of a second before the front foot on the same side to produce a four-beat rhythm with a little hiccup in the middle (this is sometimes referred to as an “amble”), but many others swing their left and right legs together in a synchronous 1-2, 1-2 beat.

Who cares? Well, for one, conformation judges care. Pacing in the walk gait is considered undesirable in the conformation show ring in many breeds, including the Weimaraner, Collie, and Labrador Retriever. Others, such as the Old English Sheepdog, English Springer Spaniel, and Neapolitan Mastiff, have an inherited proclivity for the gait, and are not penalized for its appearance in the show ring.

But canine chiropractors and other physical therapists who work on dogs look upon any sudden onset of the pacing gait as a warning sign – an indication of something anatomically amiss.

Why Do Dogs Pace?

Dogs can pace for a variety of reasons, some innocent, some ominous. Conformation, age, weight, fatigue, and injury all can play a part in causing dogs to move unilaterally at some point in their lives. Dogs of a certain breed and size may pace naturally throughout their lives (see Natural Pacers, below.)

“Each dog is very different,” says Suzanne Guyton, DC. In 25 years as a human chiropractor and an American Veterinary Chiropractic Association-trained practitioner for dogs, cats, horses, and other companion animals, the California-based Guyton has seen many variations of the pacing gait. Dr. Guyton stresses how important it is that dog owners take into account many factors when assessing their dog’s pacing gait and trying to determine if it’s a result of genetics or degeneration – or both. “Herding dogs of all kinds tend to pace,” she says, “but it can be further complicated by spinal injury and degeneration.”

“It could be health-related,” agrees Linda More, a professional handler, judge, and breeder who works at the American Kennel Club’s headquarters in Raleigh, North Carolina. More administers special programs, such as judges’ education, for the AKC. Injury may be one reason that some dogs suddenly show an inclination to pace. “It could be some sort of injury or discomfort that no one has identified yet,” says More. “Sometimes it’s a clue that something isn’t quite right.”

However, More also hastens to mention that there are other physical explanations for the sudden onset of pacing in a dog. “It could be condition, where the dog simply isn’t in very good physical shape,” she explains. “It could be that the dog has exercised to the point where it drops into this gait as a resting gait, as some of the wild canids do. It could be structure, where the dog simply is not in good balance structurally. One of the things that we might look at in the show ring, if it’s a breed where we really do not want them to pace, is whether the angulation of the forequarters is not quite in balance with that of the rear quarters. The dog may compensate by preferring to pace.”

In the case of young dogs – especially large breeds – the pacing may be a way of coping with uneven growth. Puppies tend to grow in stages. The front end grows tall, then the hind end catches up, and pacing may be the animal’s way of compensating during a gangly and awkward, but otherwise healthy, time of physical growth.

Still other dogs adopt a pacing gait as a way of matching their handler’s slower gait. At a recent Rally Obedience competition, we observed numerous dogs who paced alongside their handlers, who were not walking fast enough for them to trot or even for a four-beat walk. These dogs seemed to prefer to pace in order to best match the speed of their handlers’ gait, especially when gazing intently at their handlers as obedience dogs are encouraged to do.

Natural Pacers: No Cause for Concern

It’s important to keep in mind that there are some breeds where pacing is actually the preferred gait of the dog when moving slowly.

The Old English Sheepdog is one breed where pacing is considered a desirable trait – not a show-ring faux pas nor sign of trouble. Bred to drive large flocks of sheep over long distances, Sheepdogs developed a type of pace – also called an amble and variously described as a ‘shuffle’ – that would allow them to conserve energy as they made slow treks across long distances. “The (walk) pace can have several speeds,” the AKC’s Linda More points out. “Some dogs will do it slowly as a walk; some dogs do an amble, which is like a four-beat version of a pace.”

The Sheepdog’s size – large-breed dogs are more prone to pacing – and shortbodied conformation lends itself to comfortable, natural pacing.

Check the breed standard for your dog. Most breed descriptions will include information regarding the dog’s desired gaits, including whether pacing or ambling is common or undesirable.

Pacing and Physical Pain

While it’s comforting for some owners to know that there are dogs who will pace naturally throughout their lives, the owners of mature dogs who suddenly begin pacing when walking at liberty (as opposed to on-leash, while matching their handler’s pace) would be wise to investigate further. A dog who begins to adopt the gait after years of a “normal” walking gait may be suffering from a physical problem.

At one end of the scale, the trouble could be as simple as fatigue. “In a perfectly normal, healthy dog, the pace can be used as a resting gait, sometimes called a fatigue gait,” says Linda More. “If you have a team of sled dogs that has just done 50 miles, by the time they finish they are not as fresh as when they were when they started. They might drop into a pace because apparently it requires less exertion.”

Physical problems can come in the form of illness, too. “Pain from some source should be considered as a possible trigger for pacing behavior, especially when there is no apparent imbalance in structure,” says Mary Lou Sandvik, who shares her La Puente, California, home with the Papillons she breeds and exhibits. Sandvik was once asked to evaluate a young dog that had recently started pacing. After watching the dog in the ring and later at liberty, she noticed that he seemed generally uncomfortable. While the Papillon’s owner was unaware of any injury, she, too, agreed that the dog appeared to be in pain. The next day, a veterinarian discovered the dog had Valley Fever, a serious infectious disease endemic to parts of California and Arizona. The young Papillon was considerably uncomfortable and required aggressive treatment, but a few weeks later was back to normal – and no longer paced.

Even more seriously, pacing can definitely be a sign of injury, points out Diana Thompson, who specializes in helping dogs and horses with movement and behavior problems using massage, acupressure, and other physical therapies. “It’s a gait pattern that, to me, can mean spine and muscle trouble.”

Thompson, who is based in Fulton, California, goes on to explain that gait patterns such as pacing may often be a sign of pain, injury, and physical degeneration. Pacing is a deep survival mechanism, as evidenced by dogs who pace in order to expend less energy. It’s also a way to avoid discomfort, maintains Thompson. “They’re taking the path of least resistance. If your knee is stiff, you just swing from the hip. You don’t even think about it – you just start altering your gait pattern to protect the knee.”

In order to illustrate this point in the animal massage classes she teaches, Thompson has participants try walking same-sided, their right arm swinging in the same direction as their right leg. “In order to propel your right arm and right leg forward at the same time, you’ll see that you freeze up the whole spine,” Thompson explains. “There’s no pelvic tilt, or open and shut; there’s no undulation of the spine.” Without the normal tuck and open of the pelvis, the spine becomes essentially one big stick, with the legs shuffling independently below – nature’s magnificent way of minimizing pain and discomfort by immobilizing the back.

Because dogs twist so much when they work and play (as opposed to larger animals such as horses), they are predisposed to lower thoracic problems. Many dogs develop a pacing gait pattern in order to avoid putting stress on an already injured part of the body. “Then the injury heals, and they’re still stuck in that pattern,” says Thompson. This pattern can then go on to debilitate other parts of the body such as hips, hocks, or stifles, and the cascade of physical problems has begun.

Such was the case for one young Golden Retriever who survived a fall out of a second-story window, suffering an injury that healed but left the dog with a legacy of physical problems. By the time his owners came to Thompson for help, he was dragging a foot and shuffling badly. Thompson saw that the initial injury had healed, but the Golden continued to compensate for it with a pacing movement; his neurological system had become thoroughly patterned to this motion.

Thompson used one of her most trusted tools – ground poles or a similar substitute – to help the dog. In the Golden’s case, a garden hose substituted for poles because that’s what was available to the owner. “I had the owner lay out the hose in a snaky pattern, and then walk the dog slowly over the hose, so that his pattern (of shuffling and pacing) was interrupted. He had to differentiate that he had legs and just couldn’t shuffle them along the ground without picking them up,” Thompson explains.

Signs of Spinal Problems in Dogs

Pacing can also be an outward manifestation of some sort of structural and/or neurological dysfunction. Spinal troubles are often the culprit – the tip of the proverbial iceberg. There’s a variety of things an owner can use to help a dog with spinal degeneration, including massage and bodywork; chiropractic care; acupuncture, acupressure, and moxabustion (using heat on acupuncture points); herbs; and flower essence remedies.

Because spinal abnormalities can have such a profound effect on an animal, Dr. Guyton stresses the importance of identifying the cause of an abnormal gait. “Have a veterinarian check the dog, and then have a chiropractor check the spine,” she suggests.

Thompson agrees. “The muscles and the joints of the spine that are frozen up don’t just control movement, they affect the inner organs. The nerves that run through those areas – whether it’s the joints of the spine or the adjacent muscles – they get pinched and limit the nerves that go down and communicate with the stomach, the large intestine, the bladder. Then the dog starts to have internal organs that are weaker and weaker because they don’t get nerve information and communication from the brain.”

Dr. Tim Grund, a chiropractor from Santa Rosa, California, concurs that gait pattern changes can be a window into the neurological workings of an animal. “Literally, the spine is the house of your life blood,” he states emphatically. “It’s part of your central nervous system, an extension of the brain. The spinal cord comes down from the brain stem, and the brain stem is an extension of the brain, and the nerve roots come out of the spinal cord and run out to innervate the organs and the muscles.”

Hands-on Care for Pacing Dogs with Spinal Trouble

Bogey, our sweet, reserved Australian Shepherd cross, has worn a neat little path around our house. Every morning and every afternoon, the gentle old guy shuffles along the bare dirt ring we’ve started calling “Bogey’s loop.” At almost 15, Bogey’s nearly blind and deaf; his hind end is weak and wobbly, and even his sense of smell seems dull, so this path is important to him. It’s security in a world that’s slowly going dim.

Bogey’s pacing gait seemed attributable to age, spinal degeneration, and related neurological deficits. But it wasn’t until I started researching pacing that I decided to learn more about why our beloved old guy had developed such an odd way of walking, and what I might do to help him.

I made an appointment with massage therapist Diana Thompson, who spent a morning with Bogey and me. What I expected to learn and what I came away with were two different things. Our session with Thompson taught me some lessons about healing – and love.

My expectations: Thompson would tell me that Bogey was really far-gone. Totally messed up. A physical nightmare. And I would have to feel even more guilt that I hadn’t done better by him. But with a busy life – two other dogs, two cats, three horses, a husband and young children to be concerned with, I just didn’t have the time to give Bogey hours of massage or to ferry him around to chiropractor appointments.

We were all settled on the floor of a carpeted room where Bogey could rest comfortably and move about without having to negotiate our dreaded, slippery hardwood floors.

As Thompson began touching Bogey, he grew extremely worried, guarded, and fearful. “He has some thoracic issues,” she said. “His back is really frozen. His lower back is roached (rounded).” The pacing gait allowed Bogey to immobilize his own back in order to reduce discomfort. We speculated that the pain and inflammation in his thoracic region might have been the result of an old injury; Bogey had exhibited sensitivity in this part of his body since he had joined our family at the age of eight.

“Massage might be too invasive,” said Thompson to my surprise. “I think chiropractic would be the best start for Bogey,” she continued. Because Bogey had built up such a barrier to touch, he grew anxious and fearful when Thompson first attempted to work on him. Then it dawned on me that I had touched Bogey less and less as he had aged. As he became older, I felt sadly disconnected from him.

Thompson gave Bogey a flower essense remedy called Rescue Remedy, to help him settle down; she also prepared a second combination remedy of Mimulus, Red Chestnut, and Walnut in order to help alleviate his fears and worrying. We agreed that it would be best to proceed with me doing the massage work and Thompson instructing.

“Remember how astonishing it is that he’s 15 and is doing so well,” Thompson said, impressed by how vibrant Bogey’s life force seemed to be. The warmth in Bogey’s hindquarters signaled to her that he still had heat or life in his hind limbs – a sign that his hindquarters were not quite as disconnected as I had pictured.

For a dog of very advanced age like Bogey, our goal was simple: To make him feel more comfortable. In this sense, she encouraged me to do “any type of touching” that Bogey would accept. “Start with places they like. It’s wonderful if you have training in massage and acupressure, but people who love their animals can work on them intuitively.”

I started out by holding my cupped hand just a few inches above his back – over the second and third lumbar joints. Here, I was to work on an acupressure point called Guardian Vessel Four, also known as “The Gate of Life.” Without even touching Bogey, Thompson said the energy of my hand would help wake up Bogey’s neurological system. “Start slowly,” she encouraged. “The electrical field doesn’t stop at the skin. Just touching with warmth, heat, and energy opens the neuropathways.”

Somewhat overloaded by the Reiki-style work we were doing, Bogey left us frequently, suddenly getting up to walk into the kitchen and look suspiciously back in our direction. “Always allow him to walk away and take breaks,” said Thompson. “It’s disconcerting to the owner, but important to the dog.”

But Bogey did return, a sign he was beginning to enjoy the work. Next I focused my fingers on his sternum. Slowly, I moved down the sternum, gently placing my fingertips between the ribs. This was a non-threatening way of working with the troublesome thoracic joints at the top of the ribcage.

Bogey started to relax. At this point, I had done a total of about three minutes of touch work on him. Then he got up again and walked into the kitchen, this time without pacing. His hindquarters were squarely underneath him – his movement reminiscent of a younger Bogey. “Just two or three minutes,” said Thompson. “That’s as simple as it has to be. You’re just trying to wake up their neurological system.”

We quit on that note, Thompson explaining that Bogey’s body would continue to integrate the changes we had helped bring about. She further encouraged me to also massage Bogey’s ears, the base of his tail, and to use my hands to gently suggest a bend and lift to Bogey’s ribcage. This, she says, is part of the overall goal: To wake up the body and remind Bogey’s brain that there is a whole dog there.

The most important – and least expected – result of the session was that it gave me permission to touch Bogey again. I saw that he was not aloof; he was guarded – and he needed my help. By working with him gently, with respect, intuitively, and with love, it would be possible to help a very old dog feel just a little bit better. “If we can give them just five percent of their bodies back,” said Thompson, “that’s a lot.”

Time for Assessment?

Given that there are several innocent reasons for a dog to pace, as well as a number of ominous ones, it’s important to determine whether your dog’s tendency to pace at the walk is related to the former, the latter, or a combination. Again, there is a big difference between a dog whose breed has a predilection for pacing and who has paced regularly throughout his life, and a dog who has recently begun pacing. If your dog has begun pacing in the aftermath of an automobile accident or sports- or play-related injury, or has begun to display other signs of back pain (a reluctance to jump into the car or up onto furniture, trouble negotiating stairs, etc.), a visit to your veterinarian is in order. In addition, a reference to a veterinary chiropractor, or a veterinarian who specializes in sports medicine, would be well worth the investment.

Most health practitioners agree that anything a dog’s owner can do to assess a problem and offer some physical support can go a long way in helping dogs who display injury-related pacing. Whether they use simple home massage or a more comprehensive approach including chiropractic care, “I’ll bet you’d be surprised at how much they could get back,” says Thompson. “A little bit does an unbelievable amount toward making these dogs more comfortable.”

Katie Margason-Moore is a freelance writer based in Sonoma County, California. Her family includes dogs, cats, horses, children, and an understanding husband.


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