Animal Chiropractic: A Little Backtalk
By Douglas Knueven, DVM
Chiropractic care is essential for any organism with a spine to achieve the highest level of health and performance. Let me explain this bold statement. The spinal cord is the channel for information between the brain and the organs and tissues of the body. It is made up of thousands of long nerve fibers which carry electrical messages like a living telephone cable. This precious pathway for bodily communication is totally encased in bone.
The bony spine is a mechanical marvel. It supports the skeleton, acts as an attachment for many of the body's muscles, protects the internal organs of the body and protects the spinal cord. At the same time, it allows for incredible flexibility. Just watching a dog slither through the weave poles gives one an appreciation of the poetry in motion afforded by the spine.
The spine owes its suppleness to the fact that it is made up of a series of small bones called vertebrae (pleural of vertebra). There are 27 vertebrae in all from a dog's head to his pelvis. These 27 bones are joined together by a series of over 150 joints. All of these joints must move in a coordinated fashion for proper locomotion of the entire body.
Furthermore, there are small openings on both sides of the spine, between the vertebrae where each bone joins to the next. These openings are called intervertebral foramina (pleural for foramen). Spinal nerves travel through these openings carrying information between the body and the spinal cord. Any misalignment of the 150 vertebral joints can constrict the intervertebral foramina and disturb the spinal nerves. This situation can interfere with messages from the brain to the body and from the body to the brain. Needless to say, miscommunication can lead to malfunction.
So, keeping the spine correctly aligned keeps the body moving properly and the organs, muscles and tissues functioning at their highest potential. Even a slight misalignment of the spine can cause anything from a subtle performance flaw, like tipping jumps, to a major lameness. The job of the animal chiropractor is to locate and correct spinal misalignments.
Various forms of chiropractic have been practiced since ancient times. As early as 2,700 B.C. the Chinese were using bamboo poles for self adjustment. In 400 B.C. Greek physician Hippocrates, the father of Western medicine and the source of the medical doctor's Hippocratic Oath, stated, "Look well to the spine for many diseases have their origins in the dislocation of the vertebral column." Egyptian hieroglyphs dating from 200 B.C. also document spinal manipulation. In the 1600's, England had bonesetters. However, it was American healer D.D. Palmer who brought chiropractic into modern times. The adjusting techniques he originated in 1895 began the practice of chiropractic as we know it.
Even more recently, animal chiropractic was pioneered by Dr. Sharon L. Willoughby. After practicing veterinary medicine for several years, Dr. Willoughby went back to school -- this time to earn a Doctor of Chiropractic degree. She blended her expertise in veterinary medicine and chiropractic, and in 1985 developed a 180-hour course for both veterinarians and chiropractors to learn animal chiropractic. Out of this course grew the American Veterinary Chiropractic Association (AVCA). The AVCA tests and certifies the over 1,100 animal chiropractors currently practicing.
Like other holistic practitioners, animal chiropractors believe in a vital force that animates all living creatures. For chiropractors, this vital essence goes by the name "Innate Intelligence." This energetic component of life is what allows the body to heal itself and maintain homeostasis. The Innate Intelligence asserts its influence on the body through the nervous system. It needs a perfectly functioning nervous system in order to keep the body working smoothly. By relieving the nerve interference caused by joint aberrations in the spine, the animal chiropractor facilitates the Innate Intelligence and thereby aids healing.
The word "subluxation" is used by chiropractors to denote an abnormally functioning spinal joint. A subluxation is not so much a bone that is out of place as it is a joint that is not moving properly. Even slight glitches in spinal joint motion can cause the surrounding tissue to swell and muscles to spasm. This can lead to pressure on the spinal nerves as they exit the spine. A 1986 University of Colorado study demonstrated that the amount of pressure equivalent to the weight of a dime on a spinal nerve was enough to cause it to malfunction in as little as 24 hours.
Subluxations have numerous causes. Trauma is the most obvious origin. This includes not only severe trauma such as being hit by a car but more subtle disturbances such as slips, falls and missteps -- basically living life. In fact, birth itself sometimes causes damage to the spine, starting the poor dog off on the wrong foot. Plus, some pets have been bred for traits, such as long backs and short legs, which predispose them to back problems. Finally, canine athletes are especially prone to back-jarring incidences. Jumping, racing and lead jerks can all knock the neck and back out of whack.
Chiropractic spinal problems can manifest in many ways. Puppy sitting is a common complaint that often responds to chiropractic. Subluxations may cause neck or back pain and sensitivity to touch. Pacing or other gait abnormalities might be signs of a back issue as well as weakness or stumbling. Finally, stiffness, lameness and a decreased range of motion can all indicate the need for an adjustment.
Of course, there are countless possible causes of the above mentioned problems so a dog showing these signs must be thoroughly examined -- including X-rays -- to rule out non-chiropractic diseases such as fractures or cancer. Adjusting the spine under the wrong conditions could lead to serious injury.
Several techniques exist for adjusting animals. Fortunately, none of them involve laying the dog down, belly up, on a chiropractic table and wrenching his neck from side to side. Most commonly the animal is adjusted while standing. The doctor gently presses on one vertebra at a time to locate any joints that are not moving appropriately. When a subluxation is located, a quick, accurate thrust is delivered to correct the problem. It is rare to hear any cracking as is common in human chiropractic. The pet's eyes reveal that this process is truly enjoyable.
I have personally witnessed many apparent miracles brought on by the magic of chiropractic. My very first case was a 12-year-old black lab named Pumper. I have been his doctor since he was a little pup. On this occasion, Pumper was in for his yearly exam. His caregiver mentioned that he seemed to have a sore neck for the past week. He was walking stiffly and could not raise his head. My chiropractic exam revealed a subluxation in his lower cervical spine. After a quick adjustment, Pumper was on his way. His owner was thrilled that by the next morning he was back to normal.
When taking your pet for a chiropractic treatment, be sure to seek a professional with proper training. Your chiropractor may do a great job on you and your family, but since the canine spine is different than that of the human, without special training he is not the ideal candidate to treat your dog. At the same time, your veterinarian is an expert in canine anatomy and disease, but with out specific education in chiropractic, he could do damage if attempting an adjustment. AVCA certification assures education and skill in the specialized field of animal chiropractic.
Certification involves a minimum of 180 hours of training both in the class room and on animals. Then there are thorough written and practical exams. Finally, the prospective animal chiropractor must submit case reports for animals they have treated. To maintain certification the doctor is required to complete 30 hours of continuing education every three years.
Human research has shown that athletic performance improved for those receiving regular chiropractic care -- even for competitors who were having no obvious symptoms. Monthly chiropractic treatments can help keep your four-legged athlete in tip top shape. You will be surprised the difference it can make in your dog's agility ability. For a list of local, certified animal chiropractors log on to www.animalchiropractic.org.