Chiropractic Care for Your Cat

By Shawn Messonnier, DVM

Chiropractic medicine is the use of spinal manipulation to improve health. While continuing to be the most sought-after complementary therapy for people, few pet owners think of this modality for their pets. Even when they do, there is substantial difficulty in finding a veterinarian with chiropractic skill. This article will introduce the reader to the basics of chiropractic care.

Like other complementary therapies, chiropractic medicine is designed to work at the appropriate level of the healing process and to work with the normal inborn homeostasis (the ability of the body to remain "normal and healthy") of the body, rather than simply treating symptoms. Spinal manipulation is an old therapy, almost as old as acupuncture. While few controlled studies have shown benefits to chiropractic therapy, a number of anecdotal reports have demonstrated positive benefits.

Chiropractic care focuses on the interactions between neurologic mechanisms (the nervous system) and the biomechanics of the vertebrae. In chiropractic theory, disease arises as a result of spinal misalignment that negatively influences the nervous system. Since all body systems are regulated by the nervous system, anything (spinal misalignment being the most common cause) that interferes with nervous impulses to organs could impact on the proper functioning of those organs and body systems. Chiropractic therapy seeks to realign the spine by a variety of manipulative techniques.

Spinal misalignments are called subluxations by chiropractors (this is not to be confused with the term subluxation, meaning partial dislocation, as used by conventional doctors.) A subluxation is technically defined as a "disrelationship of a vertebral segment in association with contiguous (surrounding) vertebrae resulting in a disturbance of normal biomechanical and neurological function." (Homewood, 1962.)

There are several hypotheses that have been proposed to explain how chiropractic subluxations cause disease. They include:

Facilitation- This hypothesis states that the subluxation produces a lower threshold for nerve firing in the spinal cord. Realigning the spine stops the nerve firing, relieving signs of disease.

Somatoautonomic Dysfunction- This hypothesis purports that the abnormal responses of the autonomic nervous system result from altered nerve function that occurs as a result of subluxations. The abnormal autonomic nervous system may cause disease in tissues regulated by this branch of the nervous system including the heart, digestive tract, and urogenital system.

Nerve Compression- This hypothesis states that the vertebral subluxations cause pressure on spinal nerves, which alters the normal transmission in the nervous system. Chiropractors believe that the nerve compression leads to ischemia (reduced blood supply) and edema (swelling caused by a build-up of fluid) of the compressed nerves, which causes the dysfunction.

Compressive Myelopathy- In this hypothesis, it is believed that vertebral subluxations may compress or irritate the spinal cord, which can cause ischemia and/or edema leading to clinical signs.

Fixation- The fixation hypothesis of why subluxations cause disease proposes that the diseased vertebrae are "fixed" within their normal biomechanical range of motion; the fixation involves local spinal muscles and nerve receptors.

Vertebrobasilar Arterial Insufficiency- This hypothesis states that the vertebral arteries are constricted due to the subluxations, which leads to ischemia of the spinal cord or structures of the head of the patient.

Axoplasmic Aberration- It is purported in this hypothesis that the intracellular movement of proteins, glycoproteins, or neurotransmitters in the nerve cells is altered as a result of subluxations. In this hypothesis, the altered axoplasmic transport may result in toxic buildup of proteins, contributing to disease.

Neurodystrophy- This final hypothesis, explaining how subluxations of the spine may contribute to disease, states that nerve dysfunction is stressful to the body and its organs and that this lowered tissue resistance can modify the immune system. This hypothesis proposes an interaction between the nervous system and the immune system (such interaction has been demonstrated between connections between the immune system and the neuroendocrine system of the body.)

Regardless of which hypothesis may ultimately be proven to be the cause of disease resulting from spinal subluxations, chiropractic medicine seeks to "cure" the disease process by correcting these subluxations. Chiropractors correct subluxations by performing clinical examinations and radiographic (X-ray) examinations to determine which vertebrae are misaligned. Once the location of the subluxation has been determined, the veterinary chiropractor performing the treatment will perform a spinal adjustment. The spinal adjustment, defined as a "specific physical action designed to restore the biomechanics of the vertebral column and indirectly influence neurologic function" (Willoughby) is performed as needed to realign the subluxated vertebrae and allow neurologic reprogramming of muscle contractions and healing of damaged ligaments. Usually multiple adjustments are needed as the body requires time to heal.

Note: Because of the increase in popularity in many complementary treatment techniques such as chiropractic, a number of "animal therapists" have advertised chiropractic care (and massage and acupuncture/acupressure) as part of their "specialty." Only veterinarians, or chiropractors using the technique under direct veterinary supervision, should perform chiropractic therapies on pets. Laymen, and chiropractors not working with veterinarians, should not be allowed to practice any of these medical techniques on cats to prevent possible serious harm.

While chiropractic care can be used for any number of disorders, most commonly veterinary chiropractors are consulted for cats with arthritis or intervertebral disk disease. While not for everyone, chiropractic therapy may be of benefit to your cat when other therapies have not proven useful.

Homewood, AE. The Neurodynamics of the Vertebral Subluxation, 1962, Parker Research Foundation.
Messonnier, SP. The Natural Health Bible for Dogs & Cats, Prima, March 2001.
Willoughby, S. Chiropractic Care, in Schoen A, Wynn S. Complementary and Alternative Veterinary Medicine: Principles and Practice, Mosby, 1998:185-200.

About the author:

Dr. Shawn Messonnier is a small animal practitioner in Plano, Texas. He is author of the Natural Vet series of holistic books by Prima Publishing. Visit his website at