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Invertebral Disc Disease In Dogs

Sadly, Intervertebral Disc Disease is among one of the most commonly seen spinal issues in dogs. It is an age-related disorder, although certain breeds are more at risk of developing the condition earlier thanks to the shape of their spines. It is a degenerative disease which in short, means that as time goes by, a dog’s condition gets worse when they are suffering from Invertebral Disc disease.

What are Intervertebral Discs?

Intervertebral discs are found in the spine and they act as shock absorbers between each of the vertebrae. They allow free movement of a dog’s spine all except the exception first two vertebrae which are the cervical vertebrae. Each disc is made up of a fibrous outer edge with its centre being jelly-like. When a disc is damaged in any way, it can no longer do its job which is to support the vertebrae and allow free movement. In short, the disc loses its lost its shock absorber capacity. Over time, this can lead to compression of the spinal cord due to disc herniation.

What Causes Intervertebral Disc Disease?

As previously mentioned, it is an age-related condition that's degenerative. However, young dogs can also develop intervertebral disc disease with some breeds being more at risk than others. This is particularly true of chondrodystrophic dog breeds and it’s thought the condition develops because the discs in a dog's spine dehydrate because they are no longer capable of retaining any of the much-needed fluid. The breeds most at risk of developing the condition at a young age include the following:

Once an intervertebral disc starts to degenerate, it then becomes calcified which means it can no longer do its job. There are several types of disc herniation which are as follows:

  • Hansen type I disc disease - this is the most commonly seen in smaller breeds when they are as young as two years old. However, larger breeds can also be affected and the onset of the condition is typically sudden
  • Hansen type II disc disease - dogs that suffer from this type of intervertebral disc disease are generally non-chondrodsytrophic breeds. The condition in this form is more like disc disease seen in people and the onset can be acute or it can be slow and progressive. Dogs anything from 5 to 12 years old tend to be the most affected by the condition
  • Hansen type III disc disease - this is also referred to as "acute non compressive" disc disease or "high-velocity low volume" disc disease. The onset is sudden which is typically due to trauma or as a result of strenuous exercise. Dogs typically recover with cage rest and without the need of any surgical intervention

A Painful Condition

When a disc herniates, it causes a dog tremendous pain and discomfort. In some cases, this is to such an extent that they have difficulty in walking. In very severe cases, dogs may lose control of their back legs and move around in a drunken way before paralysis finally sets in. In the most severe instances, dogs can develop myelomalacia which is a softening of their spinal cord and as a result the nerves that help a dog breath no longer work causing a fatal respiratory arrest.

Signs to Watch Out For

When dogs start to develop intervertebral disc disease, the most obvious sign of there being something wrong is when they experience localised pain to both their backs and their necks. Other signs of there being a problem include the following:

  • Weakness in their back legs
  • Weakness in all four legs
  • Paralysis
  • Incontinence
  • An abnormal posture
  • Shivering
  • Panting
  • A reluctance to move
  • Difficulty going up and down stairs or jumping
  • Total loss of bladder control

Diagnosing the Problem

A vet would need a dog's full medical history before examining a dog thoroughly. However, with certain breeds known to be predisposed to intervertebral disc disease, they might already suspect it to be the problem. To confirm their suspicions, a vet would take X-rays of a dog's spine to see if any discs have become calcified. More detailed imaging would allow a vet to make a definitive diagnosis which they would achieve by taking MRI and CT scans of a dog's spine.

Treating the Condition

If a dog is suffering from a mild case where only a small amount of damage has occurred to a disc, a vet could prescribe pain relief treatment. However, in more severe cases where a dog has lost any sensations and this includes the ability to feel pain, a more drastic approach is typically needed which could well involve emergency surgery.

When a dog develops any sort of spinal disease or where their spines have been injured through some sort of trauma, it is vital for them to be kept as quiet and still as possible which means they would need to be confined to a crate or cage. Keeping a dog as still as possible helps reduce the risk of further damage to their spinal cord.

When vets recommend surgery, it is typically because without surgical intervention total paralysis would set in. The prognosis for dogs when they undergo surgery is generally good and there is less chance of a dog suffering from intervertebral disc disease again. However, if a dog has lost the ability to feel pain, a vet would treat the case as a medical emergency, but the prognosis in such instances is poor.


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