Chiropractic care for animals

A discussion of the myths, realities and practical applications

06 February 2018, at 3:12pm

Veterinary chiropractic care is a rapidly emerging field throughout much of Europe. Its applications have become a daily routine in many veterinary practices and clinics, for example in the treatment of horses with back pain or performance issues, or geriatric dogs with degenerative joint disease. Chiropractic therapy can be applied as part of well-designed rehabilitation programmes in both horses and companion animal species, post-surgically or following injury.

Because animal chiropractic is a very young field, most veterinarians lack a thorough knowledge and understanding of this treatment method and possible applications. Unfortunately, in many cases, patients are still turning away from the veterinarian, looking for the advice and treatment of animal ‘manipulators’, who have neither a sound veterinary nor a human chiropractic education.

Misinformation, as well as myths and prejudices about chiropractic, are widespread within the veterinary profession, caused by insufficiently-trained people who claim they can put the spine or the pelvis ‘back into place’. Trained human and veterinary chiropractic professionals are aiming to effectively integrate chiropractic care to a position within modern medicine.

This article aims to give a short introduction about the principles of chiropractic care as it has developed in both the human and animal fields, and hopefully give the reader a better understanding as to how chiropractic applications within veterinary practice can improve the health of our animal patients.

Structural versus dysfunctional conditions

The very limited correlation of structural changes, diagnosed by radiology and other imaging techniques, with the clinical symptoms of back patients is recognised when dealing with human and animal back patients. The human chiropractic profession has long applied a holistic approach to the diagnosis and treatment of joint dysfunction.

It offers additional diagnostic and therapeutic means of identifying and treating primary causes of musculoskeletal disorders compared to more traditional veterinary clinical approaches alone.

Combining the careful functional examination of the individual joints of the spine and entire spine function (often called motion palpation) with the results of diagnostic imaging can aid in evaluating the clinical significance of structural changes. Chiropractic examination techniques and response to therapy can also help identify biomechanical causes of spinal dysfunction and back pain in patients that have no obvious structural pathologies, but clearly suffer from musculoskeletal problems.

The Motion Palpation Institute describes the health profession of chiropractic as follows: “Chiropractic is concerned with the relationships between structure, primarily the spine, and function, primarily the nervous system, of the body, as that relationship may affect the restoration and preservation of health. Chiropractic practice is that discipline of the scientific healing arts especially concerned with the aetiology, pathogenesis, diagnostics, therapeutics and prophylaxis of functional disturbances, patho-biomechanical states, pain syndromes and other neurophysiological effects related to the static and dynamics of the neuromuscular system, partially those related to the spine and pelvis.”

Identifying the pathology

The functional unit of the musculoskeletal system is called a motion unit. A vertebral motion unit includes two adjacent vertebrae and the associated soft tissues that bind them together. During the chiropractic examination, every motion unit of the spine is evaluated for functional changes. Motion palpation is the core of the exam. It consists of taking each joint through its entire range of motion to determine if there is loss of normal motion or increased resistance to induced motion of any vertebral body. Spinal segmental dysfunction is a lesion of a vertebral motion unit, which can be characterised by the following criteria:

1. Asymmetrical or symmetrical loss of joint mobility in one or more planes 2. Localised pain
3. Increased pain sensitivity to pressure on paraspinal muscles and bony structures in the affected area
4. Visible or palpatory signs of active inflammation or chronic tissue changes (oedema, fibrosis, hyperaemia, altered surface temperature)

The dysfunction of a motion unit has also been described as a disturbance in the ‘fine tuning’ of a joint’s function. The complex neurological ‘control program’ of the joint (or several joints) is faulty. The joint may appear completely normal upon imaging, but the range of motion is very often changed (hypo or hyper mobile).

Reduced mobility between two vertebral bodies can irritate the nerves exiting the spinal cord through the intervertebral foramen, leading to a disruption in the innervation to the tissues and impairment of proprioception. This altered nerve function causes functional difficulties such as pain, muscle changes such as spasms and weakness, inappropriate loading of the limbs, unco-ordinated movements and abnormal posture.

Other consequences may be acute or chronic muscle hypertension, increased tension of the dura mater spinalis, altered biomechanics of the intervertebral joints, as well as increased tension of the joint capsules and ligaments close to the joints.

The basic principle underlying all chiropractic theories is that the dysfunction of a joint can influence the normal neurological balance of a healthy body.

The chiropractic treatment

The goal of chiropractic treatment is to restore normal joint mobility, and reduce pain and muscle tension. The primary technique utilised is specific joint manipulation (historically often called an adjustment). The chiropractic manipulation is typically a specifically applied short lever, high velocity, low amplitude, controlled manual thrust. Thrusts are applied to specific articulations or anatomic regions as close as possible to the joint to induce a therapeutic response via changes in joint structures, muscle receptors and function, and neurological reflexes.

The mechanical effect of the adjustment leads to a momentary low pressure in the joint; the joint surfaces move apart, during which synovial adhesions and cross linkages are disrupted.

The chiropractic treatment is thought to have a specific influence on mechanoreceptors (muscle spindle cells, golgi tendon organs and joint receptors) to induce reflex inhibition of pain and re ex muscle relaxation and to correct abnormal movement patterns.

This therapy can be very useful in alleviating pain caused by chronic disease, but like so many therapeutic applications, chiropractic bene ts are optimised when performed early in disease processes.

Chiropractic research

Animal chiropractic research is still very limited, but indicates that there is a positive effect, especially regarding the treatment of the equine spine. Research in equine chiropractic has focused on assessing the clinical effects of chiropractic techniques on relieving pain, improving flexibility, decreasing of muscle tension and restoring spinal motion symmetry.

Interestingly, and contrary to most emerging areas of medicine, there have been many more research studies regarding human chiropractic spinal manipulation than have been performed in animals. Currently, veterinarians looking for evidence-based research in support of chiropractic will find some animal studies, but extrapolation from the human-based literature is also valuable in understanding manipulation therapies as a whole, as well as current and potential animal clinical applications.

Knowing how

A thorough knowledge of structural anatomy, neurophysiology and biomechanics, as well as pathology of the spine and the extremities, is required to understand the principles and therapeutic goals associated with chiropractic, and to apply its techniques properly. Medical and specific chiropractic training are essential. Chiropractic evaluation and treatment should only be provided by licensed professionals (veterinarians or chiropractors working under the supervision of a veterinarian) who have pursued additional postgraduate training in animal chiropractic.


The relatively new area of animal chiropractic offers the veterinary profession cost-effective additional diagnostic and therapeutic means of identifying and treating primary causes of musculoskeletal dysfunction and suboptimal health and performance. It represents an excellent opportunity in both equine and companion animal practice to benefit a significant portion of the typical patient base, and as such, also for personal professional development and practice growth. 

Editor at Veterinary Practice

Jennifer Parker, Bsc, MSc, PgDip, is Editor of Veterinary Practice magazine. She studied zoology at the University of Reading, palaeoanthropology at University College London and completed a postgraduate diploma in endangered species recovery with Durrell Wildlife Trust and the University of Kent.

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