Treatment And Prevention Of Canine Intervertebral Disc Disease (Part II Physical Therapy)

 by Susan E. Davis, PT  

Physical therapy begins after a prescribed period of post-operative healing, based on the veterinary surgeon’s instruction which is usually at least 2 weeks.  

Applying laser to a sweet sheltie for spinal arthritis
PT will likely consist of heat or cold applications, laser therapy, electrical stimulation for pain relief or to facilitate muscle strengthening, massage, range of motion of the limbs and home exercise instructions for you to follow, between sessions.

Limb and core body strengthening exercises are an essential part of therapy, using propping cushions, bolsters, physiorolls, foam rolls, underwater treadmills, pool swimming, etc.

In cases where sensation is impaired, the dog may not feel if he/she is dragging their legs and abrasions along the top portion of the paw can occur.  Devices can be used such as rubber toe grippers, traction booties, or pull-up stockings.

Manual spinal traction
For the non-surgical cases, physical therapy includes more aggressive methods and techniques such as spinal joint mobilization and manipulation, manual “traction” to the neck or lumbar regions, active neck extension exercises encouraging the dog to look up, rolling activities, core stabilization, “tail pull” releases, all performed by a qualified trained therapist.

Prevention of disc disease as well as recurrence is vitally important for your dog and the family.  Here are my top 10 tips for helping to avoid strain on spinal discs:

1. Avoid the use of traditional dog collars. Choose a supportive chest and thoracic harness for leash walking, hiking, and trotting

2. Use a rolled towel or round pillow placed under the curve of your dog’s neck when they are resting. They might not want to sleep with it but will tolerate it during naps and snuggle time with you and the family.  Choose a size that matches the curve of the neck and it not “oversized”.  If the dog has lumbar, or low back problems, place a folded-over towel or flat pillow under their belly when lying on the stomach, or placed between the thighs if side lying.

3. Maintain a reasonable, lean weight for your dog, as advised by the veterinarian.

4. Avoid “dog doors” that require your pet to push it open using their nose or head. Unless it is very easy to push, this activity can put pressure on the cervical discs.

5. Use ramps instead of steps for negotiating inclines. Avoid jumping on/off furniture by blocking the area or using a small ramp.

6.  Consider using soft cervical “collar” supports intermittently if your dog has moderate arthritis and degenerative disc disease of the neck. These can be ordered from pet brace companies and worn off and on throughout the day to reduce jarring and irritation to the disc and spinal joints. These are different from “immobilization” collars which are used in cases of instability.

Elevated pet feeder. Image Pets Prostore
7. Keep food and water bowls elevated to a proper height to avoid excessive neck “flexion”, which places pressure on the cervical discs if the dishes are low on the floor.

On the other hand, you want to avoid raising bowls too high which might “pinch” a nerve if bone spurs or arthritis are present.  There is also a risk of air-intake causing bloat from eating or drinking from bowls placed too high, especially in the deep chested dogs such as Boxers.

The best rule to follow in determining height elevation is: when your dog is standing and eating or drinking, their head should be in a straight line from their withers, or dipped just slightly below.  If you were to place a vertical ruler extending straight out from the withers the top of your dog’s head should be just under it, bent down no more than 25 degrees.

Remember that the “withers” is the highest part of the dog’s shoulders, at the base, or bottom of the neck.  So, you might have to purchase several stand to find the optimal height and return the other.  For large breeds the heights usually range from 12-16 inches from the floor; medium sizes 6-10 inches, and small or toy breeds 3-6”.

8. Place a non-skid cushioned thin mat for your dog to stand on while eating and drinking. This provides limb control and takes the strain off of the discs, generated by standing in 1 place on a hard floor.

9. Avoid heavy twisting, head shaking or tugging movements during play.  Some folks feel that “tug of war” is never a good mode of play for medical and behavioral reasons.  I don’t necessarily agree with that but if your dog has a known spinal issue, I would avoid these types of play activities of keep their duration short and seldom!

10. If your budget can afford, it may be wise to see a chiropractor or physical therapist, animal-trained of course, for some preventative joint manipulations, mobilizations, traction, and core strengthening exercises, on a monthly basis.    


Susan E. Davis (Sue) is a licensed Physical Therapist with over 30 years of practice in the human field, who transitioned into the animal world after taking courses at the UT Canine Rehabilitation program.  She is located in Red Bank, New Jersey.

She has been providing PT services to dogs and other animals through her entity Joycare Onsite, LLC in pet’s homes and in vet clinics since 2008.

She also provides pro bono services at the Monmouth County SPCA in Eatontown, NJ.  Sue is the proud “dog mommy” to Penelope, a miniature Dachshund with “attitude”.  For more information see her website , or follow on Twitter @animalPTsue.

Sue is also the author of a fantastic book on physical therapy, Physical Therapy And Rehabilitation For Animals: A Guide For The Consumer.  

Physical therapy can do so many great things for your dog. Understanding all the possibilities physical therapy can offer will change your dog's life. This book definitely belongs on the shelf of every dog lover.

Articles by Susan E. Davis:
Functional Strengthening Exercises: the What, Why and How
One Thing Leads To Another: Why The Second ACL Often Goes Too
Compensation: An Attempt To Restore Harmony
Paring Down to the Canine Core
Canine Massage: Every Dog ‘Kneads’ It”
Photon Power: Can Laser Therapy Help Your Dog?  
Physical Therapy in the Veterinary World  
Reiki: Is it real? 
Dog Lessons: Cooper  
The Essentials Of Canine Injury Prevention: 7 Tips For Keeping Your Dog Safer 
It's Not Just Walking, It's Therapy! 
Treatment And Prevention Of Canine Intervertebral Disc Disease (Part I)
Treatment And Prevention Of Canine Intervertebral Disc Disease (Part II Physical Therapy)
Range Of Motion: It’s A Matter Of Degree…
The Weight Of Water And How It Helps Dogs 
By Land or By Sea? A Comparison of Canine Treadmills 
Unraveling The Mystery Of Fascia And Myofascial Trigger Points (Part I)
Unraveling The Mystery Of Fascia And Myofascial Trigger Points (Part II) 
Scar Tissue: Is it Too Much of a Good Thing? 
Physical Therapy Tip Of The Month: Ramps! 
Physical Therapy Tip Of The Month: Indoor Duo Dog Exercises!
Physical Therapy Tip Of The Month: Best Practices After Your Dog’s Surgery

Further reading:
Intervertebral Disk Disease