Disc Disease in Dogs

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Back problems are a common issue seen in people. It can be heartbreaking to see your dog struggle with them, too. Intervertebral Disc Disease is one such back problem that dogs can acquire.

What Is Intervertebral Disc Disease?

A common malady seen in long-backed dogs, Intervertebral Disc Disease (sometimes called IVD, IVDD, or just Disc Disease) is a degenerative disease that effects the spinal column and causes compression of the spinal cord. Your dog's spinal column consists of individual vertebrae (bones) with gel-like discs in between each one, hence intervertebral disc. These discs serve to cushion the individual vertebrae, acting as shock absorbers. If the center of a disc begins to dehydrate, it begins to degenerate. When this happens, the individual vertebrae become compressed and painful. Prolonged compression can also lead to a herniated, or 'slipped' disc. Disc disease is commonly seen in smaller dog breeds, including Dachshunds, Beagles, Shih Tzus, Lhasa Apsos, and Pekingese.

Signs of Disc Disease in Dogs

The most common location for discs to herniate include the neck and the middle of the back. If compression leads to a herniated disc, you may see a sudden onset of clinical symptoms. Depending on the location of the compressed disc, whether it is in the neck or the back, and depending on the severity of the compression, you may see a variety of symptoms. Generally, though, disc disease can be labeled as different grades, ranging from Grade 1 (a mild case) all the way up to Grade 5 (the most severe).

Symptoms of disc disease include:

Grade 1: Holding head low to the ground, muscle spasms, back arching, trembling or crying out in pain, and not wanting to move or jump

Grade 2: Weakness in all four legs (if compression is in the neck) or the back legs (if compression is in the back) and when walking your dog may cross his legs accidentally, walk with his legs splayed out, or he may knuckle on his paws when walking

Grade 3: Your dog will be able to wag his tail and move his legs but may lack the strength to actually walk on them

Grade 4: Your dog will have an inability to move all four legs and will be unable to stand or walk but will still have 'deep pain' response; that is, they will react when you pinch their toes

Grade 5: Your dog will have an inability to walk and will also be lacking 'deep pain' response; this is rare but very serious when it does occur

While less commonly seen, disc disease in the lower back can lead symptoms such as pain or difficulty jumping, a limp tail, or urinary/fecal incontinence.

How Is Disc Disease in Dogs Diagnosed?

A true diagnosis of disc disease can only be made with a full neurological exam and an MRI. A radiograph can still be helpful, though. While not 100% diagnostic, your vet may be able to see an area that is suspicious of compression on x-ray. During the physical exam your vet will make your dog move their head up, down, left, and right to see if it is painful for them to move it in any particular direction. Any pain seen while doing this could be indicative of a compressed disc in the neck. Even if your dog is stoic at the vet and never cries out, any resistance your dog gives the vet in manipulating their head could be indicative of discomfort.

Your vet will also press on each individual vertebrae down your dog's back. If your dog has a compressed disc in their back, they will react when your vet presses on the area. Stoic dogs may not cry out, but their back will spasm when your vet presses on an area with a compressed disc. A compressed disc can also press on the nerves that run through your dog's spinal cord and down their legs. There are a couple things your vet will do to test if this is happening or not.

First, your vet will test something call proprioception in your dog. That's just a big word for knowing where your body is in space. It's what keeps your dog from walking on the tops of their paws. To test this, your vet will flip your dog's paws over to see how quickly your dog flips it back. Second, your vet will test your dog's deep pain response by pinching one of their toes to see if they can illicit a response. These tests are tools for your vet to determine how severe (or mild) your dog's disc disease flare up is.

Treatment of Disc Disease in Dogs

The best treatment protocol for your dog's disc disease is dependent on the severity of your dog's flare up. If your dog has a mild flare up, where they may hold their head low and be unwilling to move much but can still stand and walk on their own, a conservative treatment of medications will be all your dog needs to be back to normal. Pain medications, muscle relaxers, and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs will all act to decrease pain, decrease muscle tension, and decrease inflammation. If your dog is on steroids for another issue, be sure to make your vet aware as giving a dog a steroid and a non-steroid anti-inflammatory at the same time can cause even more problems. Your vet may also talk to you about a therapy laser. Although therapy lasers have been around for several years, they are still relatively new in the world of veterinary medicine. Therapy lasers use light energy to work on tissues at a cellular level, decreasing pain, decreasing inflammation, and speeding up the healing time so that wounds and sore muscles can heal faster.

If your dog is having a more severe flare up, where they can no longer stand or walk but they are still showing signs of proper proprioception and deep pain response, your vet may recommend emergency back surgery. A veterinary neurologist will be able to surgically repair the herniated disc and remove the pressure and discomfort your dog is feeling in the area.

If your dog is unable to stand and walk and unable to feel deep pain, your vet will talk to you about nursing care and management. If your dog does not have any signs of proper proprioception or deep pain response, a back surgery may not completely fix the problem. Your vet will talk to you about how to care for a partially or fully paralyzed dog and options that are available in regards to carts, harnesses, etc. While no one wants to see their dog become paralyzed, a quick search of social media will show that paralyzed dogs not only can live an otherwise normal life, they can thrive just as well as a fully-able dog.

How to Prevent Disc Disease in Dogs

As with most things, prevention is the best medicine in regards to disc disease. If your dog happens to be a breed that is prone to disc disease or if your dog happens to have a longer back, ensuring they are fit and trim can help keep extra weight and pressure off their mid-back. Using harnesses on walks instead of standard collars can help prevent a neck injury, especially if your dog is a puller or likes to suddenly bolt after things on the leash. If you have a long line set up in your back yard that allows your dog to roam more of the yard without having free range, clipping the line to harness as opposed to a collar can also prevent sudden neck injury. Sometimes easier said than done, trying to prevent your dog from jumping off high spots, such as the couch or bed, can also prevent accidentally tweaking a disc on landing. Providing pet stairs for your dog to use to get on and off your couch and bed can help this.

Disc Disease can seem like a scary diagnosis, but most cases are treatable. If you have concerns about the risks of disc disease in your dog, speak to your veterinarian.