Herniated Spinal Discs in Dogs

Beagle on couch
" Beagle_Livin_083008" ( CC BY 2.0) by  Orange Robot

Like people, dogs are susceptible to slipped discs in their spine. Any dog can be impacted by a slipped or herniated disc or intervertebral disc disease. It can due to a spinal injury or other issue. There is no way to prevent it, but you can reduce the risk and know how to best care for an injured dog.

What is Intervertebral Disc Disease in Dogs?

Sitting in the joints between the spinal vertebrae is a soft cushion known as the intervertebral disc. These discs are pads in between the vertebrae that act as shock absorbers. The discs can become displaced, collapsed, bulging or protruding, deteriorated, or ruptured or herniated. Depending on the exact cause, the condition could be referred to as intervertebral disc disease (IVDD) or a slipped or herniated disc. Due to the degeneration of the discs, it results in pain and neurological problems.

Symptoms of IVDD

The symptoms of IVDD will vary and range from mild pain, severe pain, to partial or complete paralysis. Depending on the severity, you may see the following:

  • Lowered head
  • Reluctance to move
  • Sensitive to touch
  • Lameness
  • Arched back
  • Dragging hind legs
  • Inability to stand or walk, staggering, or frequent collapsing
  • Trembling
  • Crying when touched

Disc disease is much more common in small-sized breeds such as Dachshunds, Chihuahuas, Beagles and other small breeds. It can lead to an acute rupture, sending the disc material into the spinal canal at a high velocity. In other cases, the material can seep into the canal, causing either only pain or a gradually progressive weakness and eventually paralysis. Depending on the location of the disc herniation, the patient may be paralyzed from the "waist down" (hind limb paralysis) or "from neck down" (unable to use any of the limbs).

Causes of IVDD

When the discs in the vertebrae degenerate, the inner disc material ruptures and the spinal cord is compressed. There are two forms of IVDD that occur in dogs:

  1. Hansen Type 1: This is a herniation of the disc that can happen quite suddenly. It is breed-specific and based on heredity skeletal deformities in the smaller breeds like Dachshunds, Shih-Tzus, Beagles, Pekingese, Poodles, Corgies, and Bassett Hounds.
  2. Hansen Type 2: This is a more gradual, chronic deterioration that affects other breeds and bigger dogs, including but not limited to German Shepherds, Labrador Retrievers, and Doberman Pinschers. 

Diagnosing IVDD

To localize the disc problem, a non-invasive CT scan or an MRI study are the most effective diagnostic tools, followed by contrast spinal studies. This is necessary to rule out other possible problems, such as a spinal tumor, meningitis, or other inflammatory diseases. If the disc has ruptured, the surgery is usually done right away while the patient is still under anesthesia. The procedure usually takes 1 to 3 hours and involves opening the spinal canal, scooping out the disc material, and controlling any bleeding. Unlike humans, who walk upright, there is no need to repair the damaged disc and the patient will be able to move normally once fully recovered. In these neurosurgical emergency cases, the prognosis for recovery varies. About 95 percent of the patients who can still feel the hind limbs can make a complete recovery if surgery is done quickly. Otherwise, the outlook is much less favorable.

Pain Management, Suture Removal, and Physical Therapy

Since this surgery removes the pressure from the spinal cord, many dogs feel a sense of relief afterward. The surgical pain, which is less intense, is managed with balanced pain medications. Additional medications may be needed to relax the urethra so the canine can urinate normally and antibiotics, especially if an urinary tract infection is diagnosed.

Sutures on the back can be removed after two weeks, and many dogs can walk at that time, even if they stagger a bit. However, just like people after spinal surgery, it can take several months for a complete recovery. Physical therapy at home or at a professional physical therapy facility can accelerate the process for many patients.

Risks of Reinjury

Finally, owners need to understand that because disc degeneration is a condition which most of these small breeds are born with, the patient is at risk for another rupture. If immobility and pain return, another surgery may be necessary in the future. If your dog is reluctant to walk or exercise, lay down or get up, or exhibits pain when picked up or jumping off of the couch, please see your veterinarian. Like humans, dogs (and cats) are prone to joint and bone problems, especially if they are overweight.