General

Dealing with Disc Disease

“You know, saa-shaay! Her back end sways side to side, and she gets down real low in the rear. Sashay. Downtown dragging. You know, ‘Shawty got low, low, low.’ Not her normal Doxie dance.”

I was not being schooled on the hottest TikTok moves, but on the sudden sauntering style of a 5-year­old Dachshund dubbed Dorothy. Apparently, I wasn’t getting it.

“She starts doing this for no reason. She can be lying beside me, jumps down and then starts walking hunched up and dragging her hind end. If I touch her back she gets a little mouthy.”

To make her point, Dorothy’s mom pulled up a sleeve to reveal a nasty gash on her forearm slashed across an exceptional tattoo reproduction of Picasso’s “Lump” Dachshund.

Note to self: Avoid Dorothy’s pointy end while examining the posterior parts. Also, ask her mom who did her ink.

Dog Disc Diseases

I immediately observed Dorothy was significantly weaker in her rear legs. I also noted a grimace as I approached her mid-back. My findings were quickly beginning to validate my initial con­cern: intervertebral disc disease.

Intervertebral disc disease (IVDD) is the most common canine spinal condition diagnosed by veterinarians.

Typical clinical signs are:

  • Sudden weakness (paresis) or paralysis in one or both rear legs
  • Intense localized pain along the backbone
  • Difficulty urinating or defecating
  • Reluctance to stand, walk or climb stairs

If the injury is in the neck region, all four legs may be involved. There are many conditions that can cause similar symptoms including trauma, arthritis, immune-mediated or infectious diseas­es of the spine, blood clots, neuromus­cular diseases and tumors.

There are three types of IVDD veterinari­ans must distinguish between.

Hansen Type 1 IVDD occurs when part of the intervertebral disc, the protective “shock absorber” located between the spinal vertebrae, ruptures or protrudes, compressing the spinal cord running down the center. This causes severe pain and interferes with nerve transmission, resulting in weak­ness or paralysis. Type 1 is most fre­quently found in chondrodystrophoid (“short-legged” or “dwarf”) breeds such as Dachshunds, Corgis, Frenchies and Basset Hounds; dogs with genetic mutations CDDY or CDPA; and dogs with obesity. These injuries usually occur in the mid-back known as the thoraco-lumbar junction or “TL.”

Type 2 is more common in older, large breeds and is a progressive, usual­ly nonpainful, disease that may lead to gradual hindlimb paralysis.

Type 3 are also called “acute non-compressive” or “missile discs” and often follow trauma or injury.

Diagnosis is made on medical his­tory and physical exam, neurological tests, X-rays, and MRI or CT scans. I’ll be the first to admit that I consider any “sashaying sausage dog” to have IVDD until proven otherwise.

Testing and Monitoring

Dorothy’s mom had identified the problem early, and my tests revealed the presence of pain perception in both feet. I explained how the simple “pinch test” is important in determin­ing how significant the spinal cord compression is in a dog. If a dog with suspected IVDD fails to withdraw his paw when the skin between the toes is squeezed, that is a sign surgery is needed urgently.

Another essential test is the “knuckle-over.” I gently bent the top of Dorothy’s paw so she was “standing” on it. Healthy dogs will immediately flip the paw back. Dogs with worri­some IVDD will either remain “knuck­led-over” or very slowly return the paw to normal posture.

Finally, I emphasized the impor­tance of monitoring for normal urine flow and pain-free bowel movements. Many dogs with IVDD will develop weak bladder function, putting them at risk for infection and complications. Other dogs will experience painful defecations, leading to constipation or worse. If Dorothy exhibited any chang­es in urine output or stream force, or cried or whimpered while going potty, she needed to come in at once.

Time for Treatment for Dog Disc Disease

Treating IVDD depends on the type, location, duration, severity and pro­gression. Dogs who have become paralyzed or lost feeling routinely need immediate surgery to relieve the pressure on the spinal cord to elim­inate pain and restore function. The longer a dog suffers from severe IVDD, the worse the chances of full recovery become. The majority of cases, espe­cially when treated early, will improve with a combination of anti-inflamma­tory drugs, rehab and rest.

dog disc disease - dog on scale

Help your dog shed some pounds with diet to help ease pressure on the spine.

Dorothy passed all her neurolog­ical tests, indicating likely mild disc protrusion and spinal compression. X-rays didn’t show any obvious spinal abnormalities, so we elected to delay a neurologist referral and MRI unless her condition worsened.

  1. I administered a potent anti-in­flammatory injection and began class 4 laser therapy that day. We arranged for one of our veterinary technicians to treat her at home two to three times a week for the next four to six weeks.
  2. Strict rest and limited move­ment for the next two weeks was also stressed. Short, closely monitored leash walks to use the bathroom and sitting quietly in her mom’s lap or beside her were going to be her only activities until further notice. Dorothy had a comfy carrier her mom would make extra-cozy during recuperation.
  3. In addition, we would later initi­ate oral anti-inflammatory medica­tion combined with an omega-3 fatty acid supplement.
  4. I also prescribed a weight-loss plan to help Dorothy shed a few unhealthy pounds that were adding pressure to her weakened spine. Because safe weight loss in dogs is about 70% diet and only 30% exercise, she could safely begin losing weight before increasing activity.

Immediate Treatment = Better Results

Within a week, Dorothy was pain-free. By one month, I okayed her to leave confinement, as long as she didn’t jump up (or down) or climb stairs. She had already lost a pound and was look­ing stronger each day. We continued laser therapy for another two months and maintained the Omega-3 DHA for life. I’m happy to report that Dorothy was back to normal within six months, albeit a bit slimmer and smarter! Dorothy’s mom attributed the vigor and vitality to the DHA joint health supplement; I credited the weight loss. We’re both probably right!

Prompt recognition and treatment allowed Dorothy to discontinue her “dragging” and resume her “Doxie dancing.” Back injuries need to be eval­uated promptly for best results. If you think your dog is suffering from weak­ness or pain in the back or legs, or is “getting too low” or “dragging around,” contact your veterinarian immediate­ly. And be sure to tell them this isn’t about TikTok.


Dr. Ernie Ward is an interna­tionally recognized veterinarian known for his innovations in general small animal practice, long-term medication monitoring, special needs of senior dogs and cats, and pet obesity. He is the author of ‘The Clean Pet Food Revolution’ and has been a frequent guest on numerous TV programs.

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