Veterinary Spinal Manipulation (Animal Chiropractic)

Veterinary Spinal Manipulation is a manual therapy, which can be used for many health and performance problems. It focuses on the biomechanical dysfunction of the spine and its effect on the entire nervous system throughout the body.

Veterinary Spinal Manipulation Therapy does not replace traditional veterinary medicine; however, it can provide additional means of diagnosis and treatment options for spinal problems as well as biomechanical related musculoskeletal disorders. Veterinary Spinal Manipulation Therapy can often eliminate the source of acute or chronic pain syndromes.

Vertebral Subluxation Complex (VSC)

Chiropractors define a VSC (referred to as a “subluxation”) as the functional misalignment of a vertebra or the limited mobility of its facet joints.

If a subluxation exists, the animal loses normal flexibility of its spine, affecting performance and resulting in stiffness and muscular tension.


Illustration of a VSC. The spinal cord is the “information highway” allowing the transmission of information between the brain, muscles, skin and all organs.

Reduced mobility between two vertebrae can affect the nerves that leave the spinal cord between these adjacent vertebrae.

Negative alteration in the nerve’s function can lead to interference in the flow of stimuli or information, which is necessary for smooth coordination of body functions and muscle contractions


Every movement, from a slight twitch of the tail to the complicated piaffe in dressage is made possible by synchronizing many muscles. If the function of the nerve fibers, which innervate these muscles, is altered, coordination deteriorates.

Small disturbances are usually only caused by a slight interference; however, they can keep the animal from performing at its best in daily routine as well as in demanding exercises.

Missteps resulting from lack of coordination may cause injury to other joints and tendons or ligaments in the legs.

An animal with a subluxation will change its posture to compensate for the restricted mobility of its spine and to avoid pain. This triggers increased mechanical strain on other parts of the spine and extremity joints, causing secondary restrictions and deterioration of the condition.

The Spine


An animal’s spine is a very complex structure consisting of bones, ligaments, muscles and nerves

Numerous muscles are attached to the vertebrae enabling the spine to move. Even though individual vertebral joints have little mobility, the back and neck as a whole is very flexible. Without this flexibility an animal cannot move fluently, jump obstacles or perform properly.

Nerves branch off from the spinal cord and leave the spinal canal in pairs. As the central nervous system monitors and controls all organ and tissue function, the transmission of information to and from it must flow freely to allow proper function.

How can a vertebral subluxation complex be corrected?

When a chiropractor or veterinarian, professionally trained in animal chiropractic, identifies a subluxation, he or she aims to correct the misalignment of the spine and restore mobility to the facet joints.

Realignment is made via a quick, short thrust along the plane of the joint. This is called an adjustment. The adjustment is a very specific, high speed, low force maneuver that moves the affected joint beyond the normal physiological articular range of movement, without exceeding the boundaries of anatomical integrity. It is done by placing the hands directly on the affected vertebra (previously identified in the examination). Only subluxated vertebrae are adjusted.

Even though horses have a very large, thick muscle mass over the spine, the vertebral joints are flexible and relatively easy to manipulate with minimal force. If the correct technique is used the ligaments are not adversely affected.

Veterinary Chiropractic Treatment Can Be Used For:

  • Chronic musculoskeletal problems
  • Acute problems such as tension or stiffness
  • Prophylactic treatment to maintain fitness
  • Maintain soundness in older animals
  • Enhance performance ability of sport animals
  • As a complementary treatment for chronic lameness such as bone spavin, navicular syndrome or tendon problems in the horse as well as arthrosis, spondylosis or tendon problems like cruciate ligament in the dog.

What are the Symptoms?

Animals with VSCs may present with many symptoms, the most common of which is pain. Animals with back pain often express this in their posture or in their refusal to work.

The animals attempts to compensate for the pain by changing its posture and way of going can result in other problems such as joint changes.

The following symptoms may indicate pain caused by a subluxation:


  • Reduced performance
  • Abnormal posture
  • Snapping and pinning back its ears when being saddled in horses
  • Insubordination when being ridden in horses
  • The attempt to free itself by throwing its head back or up or by hollowing the back
  • Swishing its tail and pinning back its ears
  • Disobedience when jumping
  • Difficulties with collected or lateral gaits
  • Changes in behavior
  • Frightened or painful facial expression
  • Sensitivity to touch

The following symptoms may occur:

  • Unleveled gait rhythm
  • Irregularity of gait which cannot be assigned to a particular leg or gait
  • Stiffness when the horse leaves the stable
  • Stiffness when bending and in its general posture
  • Muscular atrophy
  • Brushing or interfering
  • Difficulty engaging the hindquarters
  • Difficulty working “long and low”
  • Shortened stride in one or more legs
  • Overall decreased range of motion in gait
  • Difficulty flexing the poll
  • Lameness
  • Horse pulls against one rein
  • Rider is seated off center due to the horse
  • The back does not swing
  • Hooves may be worn assymetrically


The following symptoms in a dog may indicate pain caused by a subluxation:

  • Reluctance to move
  • Abnormal posture
  • Disability to climb stairs or jump onto araised areas
  • Limited performance
  • Signs of pain when performing certain movements or being lifted
  • The animal only lies on one side
  • Disobedience when jumping
  • Altered sitting position (so-called “puppy sitting”)
  • Changes in behavior
  • Frightened or painful facial expression
  • Sensitivity to touch

Subluxations in the spine can affect muscle coordination and mobility of the dog, thereby causing decreased performance.

The following symptoms may occur:

  • Unleveled gait rhythm
  • Irregularity of gait which cannot be assigned to a particular leg or gait
  • Stiffness after sleeping
  • Stiffness when bending and in its general posture
  • Muscular atrophy
  • Lick granuloma
  • Sciatica neuralgia
  • Undefined lameness. This can be caused by VSCs in the joints of limbs or the spine.
  • Shortened stride in one or more legs
  • Overall decreased range of motion in gait
  • Recurrent anal gland infections
  • Recurrent ear infections
  • Incontinence. This can be exacerbated by VSCs in the lumbar vertebrae.
  • Hypersensitivity and hyposensitivity
  • The back does not swing

Toe nails will be worn irregularly

How to Recognize Back Problems

Qualified chiropractors are trained to recognize and treat subluxations. However, riders, horse trainers and owners can monitor whether or not their animals have spinal problems. Dog handlers, trainers or owners can look for signs of VSC in their pets. Inspecting the spine before purchasing is just as important as inspecting the legs.

How to Prevent Spinal Problems

The proper functioning of the back and neck is an important basis for maintaining the animal’s performance. For this reason, PREVENTATIVE health care should be high on the agenda of any owner.

When selecting your animal for a particular discipline, you should always pay attention to their build. Many breeds have been selectively bred for years to achieve certain goals and are therefore suitable for particular disciplines such as dressage, jumping or western riding in the horse, or agility, hunting or gundog-work in the dog. Regular massage, balanced foot/hoove care, proper conditioning training and well-fitting equipment are also very important. Gentle training aid methods should be used to avoid jerking and pulling on the animal’s spine. Confinement to a stall or kennel can adversely affect an animal’s condition. Regular exercise is invaluable to promote normal neurologic input, therefore, animals should be permitted to exercise freely as much as possible.

Information courtesy of the IVCA