Dr. Whitney was asked by PetMD for her clinical advice regarding pet health. The article ended up being only a fraction of what she wrote.  She was given several questions to answer, which she did in full!

First, can you tell me a little about your background?

I have spent my whole existence around animals. I grew up in Ridgefield, a small town in southwest Washington on a horse ranch, where we had about 20 head of horses, 3-4 dogs, and always a couple of barn cats prowling around. My parents raised racehorses and I started riding from about 5 years old. I grew up showing and then later got into the sport of rodeo and barrel racing. I began rodeoing professionally once I turned 18 and competed up until I went off to grad school to pursue my doctorate in chiropractic. My inspiration to take this career path really ignited when I was hitting the rodeo trail hard.

My horse had taken a pretty bad slip during an event and she just didn’t feel right afterwards, even though there was no visually obvious lameness. Before deciding to call the veterinarian, we decided to contact a local chiropractor our race trainer had been using to treat his young racehorses. Not only was she a licensed chiropractor but she was a certified animal chiropractor. Long story short, she evaluated my mare and adjusted her full spine. I could see a drastic response of relief and relaxation from my horse throughout her treatment. I asked the chiropractor if I needed to give my horse time off, and she responded that I should be fine to start riding her again tomorrow. That following weekend we went to a competition and set an arena record time. I was blown away!

At the time I was in the process of finishing up my business degree, with no idea which direction I wanted to go from there. I had seen chiropractors occasionally throughout high school while playing sports, but never had I taken an interest in this field until after this experience. It really opened my eyes to how amazing chiropractic care could benefit these animal athletes. It was like a light bulb went on! I could continue to do what I love, while bridging together helping animals and educating the public on other alternative heathcare options for their animals. I felt strongly that this was a very unknown and untouched area of expertise that people needed to know about. I contacted a chiropractic university that next week and began my path towards becoming a chiropractor.

To become a certified chiropractor through the American Veterinary Chiropractic Association (AVCA), you have to first be a licensed chiropractor or veterinarian. From that point, you take additional schooling of at least 200 hours from an accredited animal chiropractic program, followed up with a National Board Exam through the AVCA. I was able to begin a program when I was within 6 months of graduating from chiropractic school.

Since graduating the real fun and eye-opening began! I started my own practice, Move Better Chiropractic in Portland Oregon, with my boyfriend who is also a chiropractor. We treat people, and I also treat animals through our practice, mainly horses and dogs. From my background, it probably makes sense that I have a real love for animals, especially with dogs and horses. Dogs are really one of a kind in their bond with humans, and working with them has been so rewarding. I am continually amazed by the response these animals have to chiropractic, where often veterinarians have opted to treat many conditions with surgeries or medications which are very expensive and do not guarantee results. Of course, there are always scenarios where surgery and more invasive procedures are medically necessary, however, a majority of the time there is something musculoskeletal going on that can dramatically affect the patients well being. I believe that you should always start more conservatively and help the body heal itself. After all, that is what it is built to do and you can always go more invasive if needed but you cannot undo a surgery. It breaks my heart to see animals in pain, or owners have to choose to put down their beloved animals because they cannot afford more expensive procedures for conditions that are musculoskeletal in nature. Therefore, I have made it my mission to educate animal owners about chiropractic care and other alternative care options, and to work respectively with veterinarians in providing a better quality of life for animals.

What are the most common issues you treat in dogs? For each, can you tell me how they develop?

In dogs, I commonly see a lot of stiffness in their gait patterns, especially in the hind end. Quadruped animals, those that walk on all four legs, use their hind legs to push and propel them into forwarding motion, whether it’s to take off running, jumping or when walking uphill; whereas they use their front end as more of a braking mechanism for deceleration. This issue can be due to a multitude of factors such as playing too hard or taking a bad step or a fall and straining or spraining soft tissues along the spine and hip attachments. Repetitively jumping up and down, such as in and out of a car or up onto a couch can over time lead to damaged tissues and joint restrictions in specific areas along the spine that becoming hinging points if the dog is not able to activate stabilizing muscles along their back and core properly (much like with humans). Dogs that are overweight have added stress pulling downward on their spine, changing the natural curve and joint angles intersegmentally along the spine. This added stress if not address can lead to degeneration of the joint surfaces and present as arthritis.

Long toenails are also another huge contributing factor. Dogs are meant to be out on different rough surfaces to naturally wear down the tips of their nails, they should not touch the ground when they are standing. As nails lengthen, the angles up the leg are changed from their neutral state (think of a woman wearing high heel only the heel would be at the other end under the toes) having a chain reaction up to the spine. The brain reads these angles as if the animal is trying to walk up an incline. As stated before the dogs hind end works harder when walking up hill, therefore the hind end is over-working constantly and as the body compensates for this stimulus of walking up hill dogs will develop a “roached” upward curving of their lumbar spine (low back). I continuously preach to my patient’s owners to keep their dog’s nails trimmed regularly. Ideally, you should not be able to hear their nails running on a hardwood floor, but you have to be careful not to cut too short and hit the qwick.

Another common condition I see, especially in active dogs, are Anterior Crucial ligament tears in the hind leg (ie ACL tears in the stifle/knee). This injury develops often from dogs landing from a jump or pivoting sharply on their hind legs. These injuries can range in severity from mild tears to full ruptures. With more severe tears, dogs often have injury to the other ACL due to taking on more load in the back in. The often have a limp in the hind end or fully pack a hind leg and hop forward with their hind end. Jumping and going up and down stair can be very difficult with these injuries, and dogs tend to sit with both hind legs tucked to one side to avoid putting pressure on the knee (known as “puppy sitting”). Owners are often given surgery as a first line of treatment by veterinarians.

One of the most amazing turn-arounds I have experienced multiple times in treatment, are dogs with partial paralysis in the hind end due to what is often diagnosed in radiographic studies (x-rays) as herniated discs in the lumbar spine. This injury is often caused by repetitive motion and hinging majorly and one joint in the lumbar spine, which slowly pushes the disc out towards the spinal cord thus affecting nerve function into the legs and tail. It can also be caused by a trauma such as something heavy landing directly on the back or being tackled while playing with another dog. At extremes this can cause bowel and bladder issues, such as incontinence. The really interesting thing when I have seen paralysis, there is often an upper cervical component of joint restriction in the neck. When this area of the spine is treated, there is often a dramatic improvement in the dog’s gait and paralysis symptoms decrease significantly. This is believed to be due to improved nerve function globally in the body starting closest to the brain, the body’s control panel. There are many theories out there to explain this just amongst chiropractors alone. I like to think of it as the body resetting itself, due to outside stimulus/the adjustment in this case, and activation of muscle groups that were not working properly before due to some interference of nerve function. With a “reset” the body is able to clean up compensatory patterns, and function more efficiently. I have also seen disc herniations in the cervical spine (neck), which can create limping in a front leg. This tends to be more trauma-related with injuries such as whiplash.

Another condition I have seen more frequently lately is vestibular syndrome. The vestibular system is our bodies balancing system, and what keeps our spatial orientation in check. It is closely connected to the inner ear and central nervous system. When this system is affected, it can lead to a loss of balance as well as vertigo and dizziness symptoms. To an owner this disorder can present very dramatically including constant head tilting, stumbling, falling, rolling, circling, rapid eye jerking (known as nystagmus), staggering gait, and overall loss of balance. The dizziness can also lead to nausea, vomiting and excessive drooling. It often presents randomly in older dogs, which may be mistaken as a stroke or seizure. This disorder most commonly is due to trauma or infections in the middle ear. Other more serious causes could be due to a head injury, tumor, and meningoencephalitis. Connections have also been found when using aminoglycoside antibiotics. Fortunately, this disorder often resolves very quickly. I have found very good results with chiropractic care in helping reset the vestibular system and improve nerve function in the head and upper cervical region. These patients made very rapid improvement after 1-2 treatments.

How do you spot these problems? I’m assuming for many there might be a change in the dog’s gait and some general lethargy, but anything else owners can observe?

With our animals, it is tough to always tell (see our list of common signs here) what is going on if they are not feeling well because they cannot directly say what they are feeling. However, there are a multitude of signs to watch for, specifically leading to changes in their overall demeanor. Below is a list of warning sides you should pay attention to which might mean your pup is experiencing some pain or discomfort. Some may seem obvious like gait changes, and others may not be quite so direct. The biggest takeaway here is you as the owner know your dog and their typical behavior, if you feel they are acting differently even if it’s slight there is usually and underlying reason

What can owners do if they notice any of these problems with their dog? I’m assuming consulting with your vet is good first step, but are there any at-home remedies worth trying for relief either in the short term or long term?

If issues present where the dog stops drinking water, is unable to go to the bathroom, or seems to be in obvious physical distress contacting your vet is always a great first step. If you notice any of the symptoms mentioned above, I would highly recommend finding an AVCA certified animal chiropractor in your area because there are more than likely some issues that need to be addressed. Chiropractic care is always beneficial for your animal even if for just wellness and keeping the body balance. As far as at home remedies, there are really no easy short cuts. It really comes down to simply having a balanced diet (I recommend raw dog food that contains produce and organ meat as well and supplements such as fish oil, coconut oil and probiotics) and getting daily exercise, even if it is just going on walks you and your dog’s body is meant to move if you don’t tissues will begin to deteriorate and lose flexibility. The saying “if you don’t use it you lose it” it a very true statement.

That being said, if you have an animal that has an injury who likes to jump up on the couch or bed, use a dog step stool to allow them easier access so they are not constantly absorbing the shock of jumping into their legs and back. Cold water therapy or icing can be great for an acute injury or inflamed area. Learning some soft tissue and massage techniques to use on you animal can be very valuable to keep their bodies limber and feeling good. I spend time with each animal I work on loosening up the muscles and working out trigger points, and try to educate the owners as they watch so that they can work on those same areas on their own. I also teach some rehabilitative exercises to do as home care for specific injuries and proprioception training.

As a specialist, how do you treat these problems?

As a chiropractor, every treatment begins with a thorough physical exam where I look at posture and gait, I evaluate proprioception and neurologic output, and then I motion palpate down the full spine from the head to the tip of the tail to analyze how the joints are moving. I will also check joints of the extremities, however for the first visit I only adjust throughout the spine. Often when there is an issue that may look like is present in a leg, the issue will clear up when the spine is moving well and clear of restrictions. This is because the nervous system is stimulated in the restricted areas and muscles and tissues often become “re-activated” to begin working properly again, and those muscles that may have been compensating or picking up the slack (“over-activated”) go back to working more balanced. The body is a system that works together, not just a bunch of random parts, therefore everything affects everything.

I also check for a leg length inequality in the hind end to decipher if there is a rotation in the pelvis (a common finding I see and easily corrected). The upper cervical spine also can affect leg length, I will test this by turning the head each direction while holding up the back end. If the leg length change switches from side to side then I know that there is a component to address in the upper cervical spine as well. As I motion palpate, up the spine I will adjust what areas I feel need to be adjusted. Common areas include the pelvis, mid thoracic spine between the shoulder blades, and upper cervicals. If the animal shows signs of inflammation or tissue damage I will use cold laser therapy in those areas. Later as those tissues begin to heal I will start to incorporate a rehabilitation program to help increase strength and stability.

In most cases, dogs generally show quick improvement within 24 hours depending on how severe their issues are. For acute injuries I like to see the patients more frequently in the beginning, maybe 2 times a week and will slowly wean their care down as they progress. I recommend maintenance/wellness care for all my patients every 4-6 weeks to keep them in prime shape. If I do not see any signs of improvement after 3 visits I will refer out to a veterinarian or specialist I see fit.

For any of these problems, is there anything owners can do to prevent them from occurring?

I am a huge proponent of preventative care, and as stated before the simplest best way of doing this is being healthy and active. Food is medicine and most dog food products out there are low in nutrients and high in unhealthy fillers. That is why I highly recommend a well-rounded raw food diet containing grass fed or organic hormone free meat and organs, as well as bone and produce/vegetable. This may sound a little crazy but this simple change can clear up a multitude or conditions such as allergies, skin issues, anxiety, and digestion issues just to name a few, which can lead to saving money on vet visits. I also recommend supplements such as fish oil and probiotics in specific cases. If you’re adamant with sticking to dry kibble make sure you are feeding a nutrient dense version without wheat and grain products, you can always add supplements and a little fish oil for an extra boost of vitamins and flavor. If you have a healthy or natural pet food center around you they can be a great resource in giving you tons of information on this topic, and your dogs will absolutely love you for it!

The other thing you can do is consistent exercise. Get you dog outside and go on walks or go play off leash at a park. This is so important for them not only for their physical well-being but their mental health! Movement is life and dogs crave it. They need regular exercise to keep they bodies in balance and supple. It doesn’t take many added pounds for a dog to fall into the obese category, which is extremely hard on their bodies and leads to many awful issues long-term.

Are there any breeds that are genetically predisposed to back problems?

Certain breeds are believed to be more susceptible to conditions such as hip dysplasia, such as German Shepards and Labradors, which is a congenital condition where the hip joints are very steep and shallow. Hip dysplasia is something that cannot be cured, but managed with keeping the body from overcompensating through chiropractic. However, many older dogs I have treated have been misdiagnosed or assumed to have hip dysplasia based on their breed and stiff hind end. Often the stiffness is do to rotation in the pelvis which can be corrected with adjustments. The only way to definitively diagnose hip dysplasia is with an x-ray, and in many cases I have seen these come back negative with the hips looking completely clean.

Another commonality I would say is breeds that tend to have longer back and shorter legs, such as the Dachshund and Corgi, can be more susceptible to disc herniations in the lumbar spine. This is often occurs if these animals are overweight and have increased stress where their bellies are pulling down on their spines constantly by gravity and they have weak core and abdomen muscles.