Biopsychosocial Health in Dogs
By Chris Bates, DO, Animal Therapist and Lecturer at London College of Animal Osteopathy (LCAO)
When we look at the health of a patient as an Osteopath, there is more to it than assessing the animal for musculoskeletal anomalies and rubbing backs. Osteopathy has always been a system that considers all of the possible external and internal factors that impact health states. Patients in Osteopathy are seen as a triune of mind, body and spirit (Still, 1899/2018); the spirit aspect has much been forgotten in modern Osteopathy (particularly in the human realm) but still plays an equal part in health and wellbeing.
Dogs are very intuitive and emotional creatures. This is something we love about our four-legged companions, but it is also a possible reason for disturbances in their health and wellbeing. We have all experienced what it’s like to feel like we are getting sick after a particularly stressful week at work or to get aches and pains following an emotional event such as a funeral. These reactions are completely normal and as a result of the interdependent relationship between our mind and bodies. Dogs are very susceptible to emotional change due to their extremely well-developed empathy and attunement to body language. Dogs evolved close familial bonds and emotional intelligence as an effective survival mechanism and this has made the domestication of dogs so successful and rewarding for both animal and human (Adam Miklosi, 2016). The problem with any sort of sensitivity is the possibility for something to create a negative outcome via this perceptive pathway.
Let us consider a hypothetical case.
A dog and owner come to see you as an Osteopath and the owner explains that their dog (a 3-year-old Labrador male) has been walking wide behind and their hindquarters seem to stray to the left instead of tracking neatly into the line of the front. Perhaps the most noticeable sign you see as the dog enters your clinic is that they are clearly very nervous and display a typical fear posture when greeting you.
It is then important to consider what that dog’s posture is like when at home or anywhere else. We would question the owner as to the dogs usual behaviors and what their interactions are like with people and other animals. Through the case history we discover that the dog is a rescue and had a very troubled and abusive past before the owners got him. The owner says how he is a very nervous and frightened dog and often shows the posture we see in the clinic.
On physical examination the dog displays reduced range of motion in spinal extension in the lumbar region (lower back), reduced hip extension (left more than right) and a sensitive reaction to palpation over the superior stifle region (just above the knee). If we take a look at the picture above of the fear posture and imagine being in this position consistently, then we can certainly see why areas of the body would try to accommodate the posture and alter their structure and function. The lowering of the hind end increases the flexion of hip and stifle joints, the hip flexors will shorten and neurologically “retune” to maintain that position with less physical effort. The highly tendinous tissue of the quadricep muscles located just above the stifle joint will be on stretch regularly and therefore become more reactive to touch.
The spinal region becomes really complex and the fearful flexion of the spine then alters all the other ranges and movements of the spine too. As renowned Osteopath Harrison Fryette (1980) explains in his three spinal laws, flexion of the spine will alter the available range in other planes of movement. The dog may well have begun to rotate and side bend the spine resulting in the non-tracking hind end due to the regular flexion and resultant tension in the spinal flexors and abdominal muscles.
So, we begin to see the trail of clues leading us back down the pathway of these symptoms and come to a hypothesis that the dog’s emotional state has certainly a large part to play in the posture and possible resulting discomfort they feel. Although this is just a hypothetical case, it’s easy to see the basic principles of the biopsychosocial approach to health. This is one of the many things that make Osteopathy such a fascinating and rewarding career, it is like being a holistic detective and seeking the clues to your hypothesis. Obviously, unless you are a qualified behaviorist, this case would also need referral to behavior specialists to resolve the root cause of this particular problem. As long as the behavior is not dangerous and you have risk assessed if the animal is safe to treat then Osteopathic treatment can still take place; in fact, the resolution of physical manifestations will in turn impact the emotional state of the animal. We know that one part of the triune cannot exist and function without the other and so while we are not treating it behaviorally, we will undoubtedly have an effect upon the mind’s state by interacting with the physical state.
To find out more about the history and principles of Osteopathic practice, click here.
Ádám Miklósi. (2016). Dog behaviour, evolution, and cognition (1st ed.). Oxford University Press.
Fryette, H. H. (1980). Principles of osteopathic technic. Carmel, Calif., Academy Of Applied Osteopathy.
Still, A. T. (2018). Philosophy Of Osteopathy. (Original work published 1899)