In dog sports we tend to focus on the orthopedic side of things. We obtain information on structure, growth plate maturity, and OFA hip and elbow scores (I like Penn hips scores myself). As we evolve as dog sport enthusiasts we are becoming more familiar with soft tissue “itis” lingo, (as in bicepital tendonitis) and the important role of ligaments and tendons for joint support. But as we expand our knowledge pertaining to canine performance and health the frontier not yet explored is neurology and how it pertains to canine sports and performance longevity.
So, how does neurology fit into dog sports you ask? Well, to start, it’s your dog’s coordination center. It’s how your dog knows where its body is in space, or for the agility folks out there, on the dog walk or teeter. It’s the communication center for quick movements, timely weight shifts, balance reactions, and oh soooo much more. Many times when our dog’s performance has slowed or becomes inconsistent we, being the conscientious companion to our four-legged compadre, seek expert advice from our primary veterinarian or orthopedic vet specialist only to find out that the x-rays are normal. Relieved on one hand but frustrated on the other, we plead our case about the now “phantom” lameness to the point of feeling like a neurotic owner and walk out with a prescription for rest and NSAIDs. Case closed, but should it be?
Neurological issues in sporting dogs tend to be mysterious. They tend to be that invisible something that you just can’t put your finger on. That non-reproducible, consistently inconsistent toe scuff or lameness that goes away with rest, but returns after the vacation is over. That occasional odd gait pattern that only YOU see or which presents itself just long enough to make you think that maybe you really are “that” neurotic dog owner. I know. I’ve been there and done that!
Neurological issues typically arise in performance dogs as a response to the repetitive forces of the sport. Here’s sporting neurology in a nutshell. Along the spine each two vertebrae make up a joint and their corresponding ligaments are responsible for supporting these joints. In response to the repetitive mechanical stress, force, or load, which in turn causes increased vertebral movement (hypermobility) these ligaments thicken. The thicker the ligament the more support it provides. As these ligaments become thicker they may compromise the nerves that exit the spinal cord or they may apply pressure on the disc causing it to become unstable over time.
Another way the spine responds to repetitive hypermobility is by producing osteophytes or bone spurs formed by the vertebral bodies. This is the vertebral body’s way of stabilizing the joint. The nerve roots, which exit the spinal cord, are very sensitive to pressure and when irritated may produce abnormal sensations in your dog similar to what we experience when we bang an elbow, deal with carpal tunnel syndrome, or experience the radiating pain that goes down our leg from sciatica. Just think of how many times your dog uses it’s neck during the weaves or the multiple jolts it experiences from the teeter or from hitting the upside of the A-frame.
So, why are so many neurological issues missed? Well, MANY neurological issues DO NOT show up on radiographs; they require a MRI for identification. Yes, just saying those three little letters cause the cash register in my head to cha-ching. It’s that added zero at the end of the price tag that makes many of us doubt those inconsistent observations. But sadly it’s true. An MRI is the only way to figure out why a dog keeps scuffing her right front paw one day and her left rear paw the next even after normal radiographs, rest, and NSAIDs.
Another way, in my opinion to demystify the consistent inconsistency of your dog’s performance is to seek out a canine specialist who uses his/her hands, eyes, and ears as diagnostic tools. A physical therapist that’s certified in canine rehabilitation therapy, a canine chiropractor, or even a canine massage therapist can help. During our MANY years of training and within our scope of practice, our hands have become sensitive diagnostic tools and our expanded training has allowed us to be able to differentiate between an orthopedic issue and a neurological issue. Our job is to then steer you in the right direction for further veterinary diagnostics when needed.
This last sentence is not intended to toot my own horn, but rather to acknowledge the process. Tess and I were just at the neurologist’s office to determine if she had a bulging cervical disc or a radial nerve issue. Because I was armed with information about her triceps brachii muscle atrophy, restricted vertebral movement at C4-T2, inconsistent stilted gait which is exacerbated by exercise (this of course was unable to reproduce in a 12 foot long hallway,) and because I was able to articulate the reason why I was there, Tess was not written off as having “typical age related changes” and given a prescription of rest and NSAIDs. Instead we were offered a chest x-ray, EKG, prednisone, and yes, the dreaded MRI. Cha-ching, cha-ching, and cha-ching.
It’s not easy to “read” our dogs and re-counting what we see to a third party is sometimes like trying to describe the color blue to a visually impaired person. There’s no reason you have to do it alone when you have canine specialists who can assist you with the process. Trust your intuition, be patient with the process, and continue to advocate for your dog. Carpal tunnel syndrome used to be hard to describe too.