Spinal Disk Problems in Dogs

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A dog’s spinal column is an intricate and crucial part of his nervous system. It not only protects the spinal cord, which carries messages to and from the brain and throughout the entire body, it supports the dog’s weight and allows flexibility of the back. But it’s also prone to conditions that can cause pain, lameness, paralysis and other problems. Many of those conditions are related to the intervertebral disks.

What Are Intervertebral Disks? 

The spinal column consists of a series of bony structures called vertebra, which encase the spinal cord. In between each vertebra is a disk-shaped piece of cartilage filled with a gelatinous substance that acts as a shock absorber and prevents the vertebrae from rubbing against each other. Problems begin to occur when the jelly starts to harden. Trauma or pressure can force the hardened jelly to bulge upward and possibly rupture or herniate. If the disk substance puts pressure on the spinal cord, it can cause pain and other problems related to improper functioning of the spinal cord.

Disk Problems that Affect Dogs

According to Natural Dog Health Problems: Dog Back Problems, there are two primary problems that affect a dog’s intervertebral disks:

  • Disk extrusion. 
  • Disk bulging.

Disk extrusion, called Type I disk herniation, occurs when the disk material hardens causing damage to the outer covering of the disk. Any type of sudden trauma can cause the disk to rupture or herniate, sending the inner material into the spine. The second type, disk bulging or Type II, occurs when the jelly inside the disk hardens over time and causes the disk to degenerate and bulge up against the spine.

Type I disk herniations most commonly affect small dogs with short legs and long bodies, such as dachshunds, basset hounds, beagles and Pekingese. Type II herniations are more common in big dogs such as German shepherds, golden retrievers and Saint Bernards. Type I disk problems generally occur suddenly, while Type II problems generally come on gradually and are less severe.

Symptoms of Canine Disk Problems

Type I disk herniation typically is caused by some sort of trauma to the backbone and the onset of symptoms is usually sudden. Twisting, jumping or blunt force can cause the disk material to explode into the spinal canal and press against the spine, causing back pain and lameness. Type II disk symptoms generally come on gradually and are less severe.

The symptoms will depend on the amount of pressure on the spine as well as the location of the herniated disk. A herniation in the lower back likely will affect the rear legs and abdominal organs, whereas a ruptured disk in the neck may affect the entire body.

A herniated disk, especially Type I, likely will cause your dog to begin limping suddenly or show reluctance to play, go up or down stairs or jump on furniture. He may have trouble bending his neck to eat or drink. Depending on the area affected, your furry friend may lose control of his bladder or bowels or suffer paralysis of his limbs. These symptoms will be less pronounced and come on slower in Type II disk herniations.

Diagnosis and Treatment

Your veterinarian will diagnose a herniated disk by clinical examination and physical history. He will likely take X-rays to confirm the diagnosis and may use other procedures such as a myelogram, MRI or CAT scan to determine the exact location of the disk rupture.

Treatment for mild cases of disk disease include pain relievers, ant-inflammatory medications and muscle relaxants. Crate confinement and avoidance of most physical activity for several weeks generally is required. For more serious cases, surgery may be necessary to remove the disk material that is putting pressure on the spinal cord. The surgeon may need to cut away part of vertebra around the damaged portion of the spine. In both instances quick diagnosis and treatment is important for a good prognosis, and in many cases, dogs can make a full recovery.

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