Many of you reading this have probably dealt with back problems at some point in your lives, but what many people do not realize is how common back trouble is in dogs. Certain breeds like dachshunds, basset hounds, beagles, and shih tzus are especially prone, and sometimes the disease can be devastating.
The overwhelming majority of dogs afflicted with back trouble have some form of intervertebral disc disease. The bones of the spinal column called vertebrae have cushions in between that also protect and allow the vertebrae to move. These discs can bulge or herniate into the spinal cord and nerves, resulting in pain, numbness, and even permanent paralysis.
There are two types of disc disease in dogs, not surprisingly called types I and II. Each disc has a tough fibrous ring on the outside and a soft center that facilitates the cushioning and flexibility. With type I, the outer ring calcifies or hardens, losing its function, and can suddenly burst with the contents of the center putting pressure on the spinal cord. This is the more common type in the necks of small-breed dogs and can be very severe. Type II develops over time, with the discs hardening and eventually bulging out into the spinal canal.
Symptoms are directly related to the location of the disc in the spinal cord and the extent to which it affects nerves. Some dogs have subtle signs like trouble getting up, limping, and stumbling or vague signs of pain. More severely affected dogs can be partially to completely paralyzed with incontinence and severe pain. A thorough physical exam by your veterinarian may be able to localize the problem to certain regions of the vertebral column. Rarely, mineralized discs may be seen on plain x-rays, but often more advanced imaging like a CT scan or MRI is need to pinpoint the disc.
Mild to moderately affected dogs are typically treated with strict rest, aggressive pain management and time. If the pain can’t be managed or paralysis is present, emergency surgery may be needed. Depending on the location of the disc, part of the top of the vertebrae may be removed and the disc material carefully removed. The neck can be accessed from the bottom of that area on the spine.
If caught early and some function is still present in the extremities below the disc, the prognosis can be good. However, some dogs that suffer traumatic herniation with significant damage to the spinal cord may have permanent loss of function.
For breeds prone to the disease, weight management is critical. The added weight carried by the spinal column can compound disc disease. In dogs that have mild symptoms, the need for strict rest is critical. Once the symptoms are treated and the pain resolves, these dogs will go back to full activity, and devastating progression of the disc disease can occur.
So if your dog is diagnosed with mild disc disease, please listen to your veterinarian and enforce the prescribed rest. Also, if you have a breed prone to this condition, please consider health insurance to offset the significant expense of emergency back surgery should it ever be needed.
Questions for Dr. Gary Thompson can be emailed to email@example.com or mailed to The Blade, Attn. Ask the Vet, 541 N. Superior St. Toledo, OH., 43660. Dr. Thompson regrets that he cannot answer individual letters.
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