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Dear Dr. Thompson,
“I have a problem because my dog keeps yelping in pain randomly. She’s always been very healthy but last night she was yelping in pain whenever I picked her up under her chest. She also yelped when she jumped off the couch. I don’t know what to do! I’m so scared something is wrong with her but she looks OK. Susie is 5 years old and part Chihuahua, part Shih Tzu.”
I’m so sorry to hear your dog is having trouble. It’s so upsetting for us humans to watch our animal friends struggle and not know what’s wrong or how to help them!
The most common cause for a dog yelping in pain randomly intervertebral disc disease (a.k.a. slipped disc or pinched nerve). Of course, pain can come from many sources, but this particular set of symptoms often goes along with neck or back pain.
The Number One Cause of Dogs Yelping in Pain Randomly
In my 20+ years as a veterinarian, the most common cause of the symptoms described by Karen is intervertebral disc disease. This ailment is also known as IVDD or some people call it a pinched nerve.
Just like in people, spinal disc problems are common in dogs. A disc is a cushion between the bony vertebrae of the spine.
When the disc “slips” it bulges from its normal position and presses on the spinal cord and the nerves that run from the spinal cord to the rest of the body. A bulging disc pressing on nerve tissue causes the classic “pinched nerve” symptoms described below.
Any dog can get a slipped disc, but some breeds like miniature Dachshunds, Beagles, short-nosed breeds (especially Shih Tzus), German Shepherds and Basset Hounds are more likely to have IVDD. Older dogs are also at greater risk of developing IVDD.
Read my in-depth article about IVDD in dogs for more info.
Symptoms of IVDD/Slipped Disc/Pinched Nerve in Dogs
Pinched nerves occur in two main places: a dog’s neck or the mid- to lower back. Slipped discs and pinched nerves cause symptoms like:
Mild to Moderate Symptoms
- Holding the head downward
- Spasms in the neck and shoulder muscles
- Crying in pain when picked up by front legs, under chest or belly
- Yelping when jumping off the couch
- Yelping suddenly when lying down or sleeping at night
- Screaming when touched (can be anywhere on the body)
- Yelping when walking with a collar and leash
- Running away, acting scared after yelping
- Doesn’t want to stand for very long
- Can’t get comfortable when lying down
- Grouchier than normal
- Holding tail down
- May or may not be eating well
- Trouble posturing to have a bowel movement due to pain
- Occasionally dogs get diarrhea
- Difficulty getting up from lying down
- Weak legs when standing
- Falling when walking or standing
- Stumbling or dragging one or more limb
- Weakness in one or more limb
- Paralysis in one or more legs, usually both rear limbs or all four limbs.
Diagnosing the Cause of Yelping
The first step to finding the cause of your dog’s yelping is a thorough physical exam by a veterinarian. It could be her back like I suspect, but it could be a completely different problem.
There is no replacement for a face-to-face physical exam by a veterinarian!
Some dogs will let the vet know exactly where it hurts by screaming when that part is touched.
Other dogs are stoic and try to hide their symptoms when they get to the vet clinic.
I’ve noticed some dogs will yelp dramatically at home but when they get to the hospital, I have to watch very closely to see even a slight wince of pain.
X-Rays and Veterinary Neurologists
The next step in diagnosing suspected IVDD is taking a radiograph (x-ray). During the radiograph, your dog will need to lie on her side and then on her back to get the right pictures. If your dog is super painful, the vet might suggest giving her a little bit of pain medicine to make the x-ray positioning less painful.
X-rays usually can’t diagnose IVDD beyond a shadow of a doubt, but your vet will be looking to make sure it’s not something more unusual causing the pain. For instance, infections and tumors in the area of the spine can cause the same symptoms. Thankfully, these diseases are much less common than IVDD.
Depending on your dog’s age and concurrent health issues, your vet may want to run some laboratory tests. Lab tests are helpful in identifying the presence of infections, inflammation, and unexpected organ abnormalities.
If your dog has severe symptoms like paralysis, your dog might be referred to a veterinary neurology specialist. These people are wonderful saviors for dogs with the worst cases of IVDD since they can perform an MRI or CT scan and perform surgery if it is needed.
Cost of Diagnosis and Treatment
Based on my experience as a vet in a large city in 2020, x-rays and lab tests usually cost around $300 each. Office visit/exam charges, injections and pain meds to go home will add another $150 to $300.
Total cost really depends on how severe your dog’s symptoms are and whether he has other health problems. For dogs with only mild pain and no other health issues, you might spend as little as $200. Dogs who need everything I mentioned above (excluding specialist services) will incur around $750 in charges.
If you live in a smaller town or rural area, vet fees will likely be quite a bit less. If your dog needs to see a specialist for MRI and surgery, the cost will be $5,000 and up depending on the complexity of the case.
How To Treat Mild Pain at Home
I’m happy to say the vast majority of dogs I see who are yelping in pain randomly are in the mild to moderate category. Most dogs recover from the worst of the symptoms in a matter of days, sometimes a bit longer. It’s pretty unusual to have to send a dog to the veterinary neurologist for surgery.
It goes without saying–you should have your dog examined by your vet and follow their advice. But for people who have already done that and just need a few tips and reassurance, here are the most important things you can do to stop your dog from yelping and start feeling better:
- STRICT REST IS THE MOST IMPORTANT THING! I wrote that in all caps to show how important rest truly is.
When I say strict rest, I mean no running, no jumping, no stair-climbing, no ball-chasing, no tug-of-war, no roughhousing with people or other pets.
A dog with back pain should be sitting or laying down most of the time for the one to two weeks after her symptoms started. Take her outside on a leash so he doesn’t get a bad idea to start running around.
It’s a good idea to walk all dogs with back pain using a harness instead of a neck collar.
If you must pick your dog up, support the front and back part of her body with your hands so her body doesn’t hang freely.
- Give all medications as directed by your veterinarian. If you have trouble getting her to take the meds, call your vet for help.
- If your dog will tolerate it, try warming or cooling the affected area. I like to use a heating pad wrapped in a towel set on LOW and hold it over the painful part for five to ten minutes a couple of times a day.
Your dog may prefer cold over heat. A good way to make a cold pack is to wrap a bag of frozen vegetables or something similar in a towel and hold it over the painful area five to ten minutes a couple of times a day.
- Gentle massage might be appreciated by your dog. Go slowly with this, though, if your dog protests, don’t push the issue.
- Acupuncture is helpful for dogs with sore backs (1). There are veterinary acupuncturists all over the U.S. these days and some even make house calls. Ask your vet for a recommendation or just Google “veterinary acupuncture near me.”
- Cold laser therapy seems to help some dogs with back pain. Your vet might have a laser unit or they should be able to refer you to someone who does.
Preventing Future Yelping in Pain Episodes
There is no proven way to prevent IVDD pain from reoccurring. Limiting activity long-term could actually make the problem worse (2).
Supplements to consider are aimed at decreasing inflammation and increasing overall health. You might try:
- Vetri-Disc (glucosamine/chondroitin)
- Omega-3 fatty acid supplement (click to read my article about fish oil)
- Curcumin (click to read more)–Meriva curcumin is preferred for better absorption
Finally, weight loss might help if your dog is overweight. Regular moderate exercise, 20-30 minutes twice a day will keep your dog fit. And once she is feeling better, consider starting a gentle stretching routine (click to link to a great book on stretching on Amazon) to maintain flexibility.
Hope your friend, Susie, feels better soon!
- Han, H. J., Yoon, H. Y., Kim, J. Y., Jang, H. Y., Lee, B., Choi, S. H., & Jeong, S. W. (2010). Clinical effect of additional electroacupuncture on thoracolumbar intervertebral disc herniation in 80 paraplegic dogs. The American Journal of Chinese Medicine, 38(06), 1015-1025.
- Packer, R. M. A., Seath, I. J., O’Neill, D. G., De Decker, S., & Volk, H. A. (2016). DachsLife 2015: an investigation of lifestyle associations with the risk of intervertebral disc disease in Dachshunds. Canine genetics and epidemiology, 3(1), 8.