Animal Chiropractic

Animal chiropractic is a medical therapy that is used to maintain the health and normal functioning of the nervous and musculoskeletal systems. It follows the same principles and practice as chiropractic medicine in human medicine.

In general, chiropractic treatments or adjustments correct subluxations. A subluxation is defined as a partial dislocation of the joints where the articular surfaces are still in contact with each other, but are misaligned. Subluxations commonly occur in the spine secondary to acute injury, over exercise and chronic orthopedic disease, but can affect other joints as well. Subluxations can cause poor performance, stiffness, pain, decreased flexibility and function of the muscles and nerves.

What is Chiropractic
A chiropractic adjustment or spinal manipulation is a specific high velocity controlled thrust on the specific joint that is being manipulated to correct subluxations or misalignment of the spinal column to relieve pain and restore normal range of motion and neurologic function to the area being treated. Chiropractic medicine is designed to stimulate a natural healing response and return the body to homeostasis as quickly as possible without harmful side effect.

A Brief History on Animal Chiropractic
Human chiropractic principles and philosophy have been in existence since the 1800′s and have contributed to the health and healing of millions of people. The use of chiropractic for animals has been around for almost as long. Dr. Palmer, the founder of human chiropractic, also developed and operated several animal chiropractic clinics.

However, it wasn’t until 1985 when Dr. Sharon Willoughby, DVM, DC, founded a school to train veterinarians and chiropractors alike in the application of chiropractic techniques for animals. Animal chiropractic techniques have been formulated that are different than those applied to human in order to adapt to the changes in animal anatomy and take into account differences between animal species.

After completion of the course requirements, which includes an externship and case studies, veterinarians and human chiropractors are required to take a qualifying examination and are then certified in animal chiropractic.

Chiropractic Therapy: How it works, When to use
Michael Salewski, DVM
(Dr. Salewski is a certified acupuncturist and chiropractor at Hindsight Veterinary Care, Carlton, OR)

When is Animal Chiropractic Necessary?
Working dogs present special challenges for both owners and veterinarians. They may present with lameness or performance problems that defy conventional diagnostics and leave owners frustrated because they are given rest and anti-inflammatory medications as their only options for treatment. In my practice I often see dogs for such subtle signs as lack of drive or hesitations in movement. Radiographs show nothing wrong with the skeletal system while rest and medication make no difference in their condition. So what is the answer? For many cases like this, chiropractic diagnostics and therapy solve the problem.

What are Subluxations?
A subluxation is a fixation of one or more of the vertebrae that do not allow the spine to move properly through its normal range of motion and may cause pain. Chiropractic subluxations are often oversimplified by being described as a “bone out of place”, which an adjustment “puts back in”. It is crucial to understanding chiropractic to realize that the spine is dynamic and that an individual vertebra can be in many different, normal positions depending on whether a dog is standing, sitting, running or bending. An adjustment, rather than putting this vertebra into place, frees up movement to allow for normal function without pain. Depending on the area of the spine involved, various symptoms accompany subluxations.

What Issues is Animal Chiropractic is Used to Treat?

Head Problems
Head tilting, stiff movement or the inability to turn in one direction quickly may be related to the first two vertebrae of the spine, the atlas and the axis. The atlas is responsible for the “yes” and “no” motions of the head while the axis supplies rotation. They both commonly develop subluxations and disallow precise head movement that can affect balance and coordination as well as cause pain of the jaw, head and neck.

Neck Pain
When the other five cervical (neck) vertebrae are subluxated the most common symptom is pain, often severe pain. The pain can be elicited either by movement of the neck or simply by touching muscles that are in spasm. In some instances of lower neck problems the pain may be most noticeable when the dog is jumping down.

Mid-Back Stiffness
The thoracic, or mid back area has thirteen vertebrae in the dog along with thirteen pair of ribs. Chiropractic problems in this area are also quite common and often caused by trauma, such as being “T-boned” by a sheep or another dog. Symptoms may include a change in conformation (i.e. hollowness to the back), reluctance to turn, or sometimes endurance problems due to pain in the ribs. Pain on pressure to the back is also quite common in this situation.

Low Back Pain
Dogs have seven vertebrae in the lumbar or lower back; this makes their low back proportionally longer than that of humans (who have five) and gives them much power and speed from the hind end. Most of the movement in this part of the spine is flexion and extension and symptoms reflect this. Pain in the muscles of the low back is quite common, but in athletic dogs the signs can be subtler. A decrease in explosive power can occur, lessening speed or jumping ability. Roaching or hollowing of the low back or simply shortness in stride of the hind legs, even at the walk, may occur.

Sacroiliac Pain
The sacrum is a specialized bone of the spine that connects to the lumbar area via the lumbosacral joint and to the pelvis via the sacroiliac joint. It is responsible for moving the pelvis and provides a connecting point for the transfer of power from the hind legs to the back. Fixation in this area can cause all the signs of lumbar fixation as well as sciatic nerve pain, tail carriage problems, a tilted pelvis, and even reluctance to sit.

Tail Pain
The number of tail vertebrae varies from breed to breed and dog to dog, and are not a major source of chiropractic problems. When they do occur they are usually directly involved with tail carriage problems or tail pain.

So you suspect that your dog has a chiropractic problem, now what?

  1. Don’t overlook more serious issues. Many times a year, patients come to me for help when they have more serious primary problems. The symptoms listed above can also be the result of dysplasia, arthritis, disc prolapse or disease, ACL tears, cancer and others. If you have a dog in significant pain, chiropractic problems may not be the one needing the most attention.
  2. Find a qualified chiropractor. Both veterinarians and chiropractors that have had specialized training in animal chiropractic are probably available in your area (Some states do have laws restricting the practice to veterinarians only). Don’t hesitate to ask questions about the training that they have (i.e. how many hours of specialized training they have, how long they have been practicing chiropractic).
  3. Be prepared for more than one appointment. Most dogs will have substantial improvement after one adjustment, but I usually advise clients that three to five adjustments may be necessary to completely correct the problem. I also have many clients with dogs at upper levels of competition that bring their dogs in routinely during the competitive season to keep their dogs at optimal performance.
  4. Listen to your dog. Though there may be some discomfort during some adjustments in severe cases, most dogs become very relaxed during their adjustments and are happy to return for further appointments. Dogs that do not improve, or worsen and dislike treatments may need different therapies (either traditional or alternative) or a different doctor to make progress. Chiropractic is a wonderful tool, but it is indicated for very specific situations and may not be the best tool for all dogs.

If your dog is expected to perform as an athlete, treat him or her like one. Investigate proper nutrition and training regimens. Don’t forget the importance of warm-up and stretching. Know your dog’s limitations, and don’t press them past their individual abilities. Be observant of how your dog is moving and if things change and performance is hampered don’t forget the importance of the spine and its dynamic nature.


Click Here to learn more about Dr. Troy Stevens our Animal Chiropractic Consultant

Chiropractic FAQ

Are chiropractic treatments safe?
Yes, when performed by a trained animal chiropractor. Most animals seem to enjoy chiropractic treatments.

Who may perform animal chiropractic treatment?
Chiropractors for animals may be licensed veterinarians that have taken specific training and certification in animal chiropractic in order to practice chiropractic medicine on animals.  Licensed chiropractors that have taken specific training and certification in animal chiropractic may also practice chiropractic medicine on animals only under the supervision of a veterinarian.

What does a chiropractic treatment do?
A chiropractic adjustment is a very specific treatment that corrects subluxations. Subluxations are defined as misaligned vertebrae that are stuck or unable to move correctly causing pain, stiffness and or neurological deficits. When the movement of the vertebrae or bones of the spine are restricted, the animal will not have normal function or flexibility of the spine and or limbs.

What causes subluxations?
Acute trauma or injury, vigorous sustained or repetitive exercise/ performance and chronic orthopedic disease are some of the most common causes of subluxations.

How many treatments will my animal need?
This depends on the disease or condition being treated, the age of the animal and the species of animal. Many acute cases may require only one or two treatments, whereas chronic conditions may require three to five treatments. Some chronic conditions may need monthly adjustments. Horses typically respond faster to chiropractic treatment than do dogs. In general animals “hold” their chiropractic adjustments longer than humans.

How long does a chiropractic treatment take?
A typical chiropractic adjustment can take between 10-30 minutes depending on the case.
The initial visit can take between 30-60 minutes.