Dogs can go through life coping with underlying physical conditions and many of these go undiscovered for many years. Many of my canine physiotherapy patients originally come for behavioural therapy where we discover the behaviour problems are a result of hidden pain.
In part one we looked at behavioural signs of hidden musculoskeletal problems and how they can be misunderstood. In part two we will be looking at postural signs that can indicate an underlying problem which may be causing your dog difficulty. Most people assume that if their dog can run and jump they do not have any musculoskeletal problems. Surely if they were in pain they wouldn’t do that, would they?
Well yes, they would, and they do. As we discussed in part one, dogs are amazing creatures with four legs, which means they can shift weight off the bad limb/area and carry on. This is how they manage to go on for many years without anyone realising. They can do this until the other limbs suffer from the extra strain, which is when they become obviously lame. However, there are signs much earlier on, if you know what to look for.
Watch your dog in different situations and notice whether they are pointing one or more feet out to the side or in towards the opposite leg. Are their feet very close together or far apart when they stand still? Do they seem to be leaning to one side slightly and leaning more on one limb at the front or back? Do they keep their hind limbs forward under their body rather than slightly behind them when they stand? Are the nails scuffed or excessively worn or long on any of the toes? Are any of the pads worn to one side? Look at your dog’s footprints when they are wet, walking in snow or sand. Are they even?
These things can all indicate under or over-use of a limb and can indicate increased or reduced weight-bearing. It can also tell you if they are not picking certain feet up cleanly or if they have altered the way they stand on a particular limb.
Look at them at different times or in different positions as sometimes things are more obvious than others, for example, when they are tired.
Jake before and after a walk
Look closely at your dog from in front, behind and above. Do they have bigger muscles on one side than the other? Use your hands to feel both sides at the same time. Do they feel bigger on one side than the other? Common places to notice this are over the hindquarters and the shoulders.
Again, these observations can tell you that they are using one side more than the other. look for subtle differences to catch the early signs. See if you can feel the bony areas around and between the muscles slightly on one side more than the other.
Muscle wastage on the right limb, which is the side of the weaker hip
Notice coat changes. These can creep in very gradually or be dramatic changes that come in quite fast. taking regular photographs of your dog can help you see if something is new or not.
Does the coat feel brittle, dry or scurfy in specific areas and different in others? Are there areas of fur that constantly stick up or out? Are there swirls or partings where the hair changes direction or lies flat or raised? Is it harder to run your fingers through the coat in certain places?
These signs can all indicate signs of strain in nearby or underlying soft tissues where circulation may be compromised or there is muscle tension. The patterns may not be where the problem is but they could tell you your dog is using their body in a way that is putting it under strain. Combined with the other observations we are looking at, they can give you extra information and clues.
Note the swirls and partings in the coat along the length of the spine.
Lying and sitting
Does your dog always lie on one side? Do they always sit on one side? Do they always get up using the same leg first? If you are training your dog do they seem ‘stubborn’ or ‘slow’ when you ask them to sit, lie or stand? Do you have difficulty getting a tidy, even sit? Do they take their time getting up or down? Do they fidget?
Maybe they can’t use one or more of their limbs properly. Perhaps there is a joint problem preventing them from flexing and extending their limbs to the extent needed to sit or lie correctly or get up efficiently.
Lying with one hind limb positioned to make getting up easier. Just the paw pads are in contact with the floor for easy push off whilst sparing the more worn hip on the right side.
Filming your dog can tell you a lot. If you have a slow motion function on your phone you can use that. If not you can run normal film through one of the many slow motion apps available. Slowing it right down can help you see small signs as your dog moves. It can also be really useful to show your vet to illustrate what you are seeing as these things are rarely picked up in a vet consult room,especially if the signs are subtle.
Can your dog turn both ways easily? You can use widely spaced weave poles to check if your dog can do this. if you do agility does your dog tend to go wide one way on weaves, or both ways? Do they struggle to come round for jumps or obstacles from the right or left? Do they always turn one way during everyday activities? Look closely.
Can your dog get in and out of the car or on and off the sofa easily and cleanly or do they catch their hind limbs or pull up with their front limbs? Can they climb the stairs slowly? Many dogs run up and down to minimise the discomfort and may ‘bunny hop’ through most running and jumping exercises (using both hind limbs together to push off).
Does your dog pull on the lead? This may be because its uncomfortable to load the hindlimbs, causing them to lean forward and be unbalanced
Leaning on the forelimbs causing pulling on the lead.
Does your dog not want to do things they used to? Have they changed their patterns? Maybe they are choosing to lie in unusual places or on unusual surfaces? Do they seem more nervous or afraid than they used to? Have they always been nervous or afraid? Have they stopped interacting with other dogs or have they always been reluctant to do so? Are they growling at the groomer now? Have they always growled at the groomer? Do they seem afraid to go for a walk or stop and refuse to walk part way through? Many so called ‘stubborn’ dogs actually are having problems doing what you want them to do.
As I said at the beginning, dogs can go for many years of their lives with a hidden condition. So if they have always struggled with handling or interactions with others then it is worth getting them checked over thoroughly. Even if they ‘have always been like that’. If there are sudden changes we tend to suspect a problem easier than if the problems have always been there but vary in degrees of severity. Remember dogs can be struggling with these issues from a very young age, even as a very young puppy. As they grow up, people then think its just how they are, as musculoskeletal issues are not considered unless dogs are older. So, its possible that a dogs life and happiness could be completely changed if a condition was discovered at a very young age, the pain was managed and the dog could feel comfortable and capable of everyday activities without painful repercussions.
I hope this gives you some pointers as to signs of hidden problems in your own dogs.
Julie Moss BSc. Hons., AdvCertVPhys, Dip.APhys.
Julie is a canine behaviourist, veterinary physiotherapist and TTouch Practitioner. She started Best Behaviour in 2005, which has since become part of her new venture, Canine Mind and Body Balance. She has a special interest in integrative veterinary care, where CAM therapies play an important role in truly holistic animal care. Her passion is working with older animals to give them back the best quality of life possible and she is committed to education and enabling people to recognise early signs of lameness in our dogs.