Herniated discs also occur in dogs. Many small breeds such as the dachshund or the French bulldog are often affected. The faster you act, the lower the risk of irreversible damage. That’s why it’s important to know what a herniated disc is, what symptoms to look out for, and what to do if any occur.
Herniated disc: what is it?
The canine spinal cord, similar to humans, runs from the first cervical vertebra to the lumbar region and carries information from the brain to the body and vice versa. It is sometimes responsible for triggering and controlling movements and reflexes, healthy digestion, breathing, and the motor functions of the legs and trunk. The vertebral column protects the spinal cord like a kind of coat. The intervertebral discs sit between the individual vertebrae of the spine. These are ring-shaped, elastic discs that act as shock-absorbing binding elements. Without them, the vertebrae would get caught and block each other. Intervertebral discs, therefore, ensure supple and springy mobility of the spine. At the same time, they also help to protect the spinal cord.
A disc consists of two layers:
- Nucleus pulposus: the soft gelatinous core inside
- Annulus fibrosis: the outer, solid ring of fibers that encloses the nucleus and holds the disc in place
In the case of a herniated disc in dogs – also known as a discopathy or herniated disc – the outer ring either tears, causing the almost liquid core to leak out (type 1); this leads to contusion of the spinal cord and narrowing of nerve tissue. Or the fibrous ring softens increasingly so that the core with the ring bulges more and more (type 2). This is usually a slower process than Type 1.
Identifying a herniated disc in a dog – the symptoms
The symptoms of your four-legged friend are highly dependent on the severity and the affected region. There are five degrees of disease: In general, the first sign is a more or less pronounced sensitivity to pain in the spine, which is often accompanied by a reduced urge to move. In more severe cases, there are neurological deficits. They range from numbness in the legs to complete paralysis. This also includes fecal and urinary incontinence. Another sign can be an unnatural back or neck posture – depending on whether the herniated disc is in the neck area or in the chest or lumbar area.
Diagnostics and treatment
If you suspect a herniated disc, see a veterinarian as soon as possible. Rest your dog and limit its movement. If possible, don’t let him climb stairs or jump. A harness instead of a collar also has a relieving effect.
At the vet, a general examination is usually carried out first to rule out other causes such as inflammation, tumors, or vertebral fractures. The neurological examination is then carried out. This includes an MRI, a CT, and the contrast X-ray: A drug is injected that makes the constriction in the spinal cord visible on the X-ray image. Since these measures can only be carried out under general anesthesia, a preliminary examination is also important insofar as the dog can be spared this risk and the stress if there are other findings for his symptoms.
In the case of mildly herniated discs without signs of paralysis, conservative therapy without surgery is usually used. It consists of taking painkillers, possibly also anti-inflammatories, and, above all, an absolute rest period of at least one week. Romping around, playing with other dogs, and climbing stairs are strictly prohibited. When walking, only walk small laps on the leash and make sure that the dog does not move around too much freedom in the house either. It’s better to rest your dog for a few weeks longer than risk a relapse from too early and too much stress. Physiotherapy also has a supporting effect to accelerate the healing process and strengthen the tissue.
In severe cases with symptoms of paralysis or when conservative therapy has failed, surgery is unavoidable to prevent irreversible damage. Physiotherapy is required after the operation so that the muscles learn to work properly again and sensitivity is restored. Here, for example, an upright training takes place – and as soon as the four-legged friend is able to stand again, therapy on the underwater treadmill.
The cost of an operation is very dependent on the individual patient. They go into the four-digit range, you also have to add the follow-up care.
The most common causes of a herniated disc in dogs include:
- Breed predispositions (particularly common in small dogs with short legs and long backs, such as dachshunds)
- obesity and lack of exercise
- overload and improper loading
- Age-related wear and tear
- injuries and accidents
If you want to actively do something to prevent a possible herniated disc, then make sure your dog has a balanced diet and exercise. Strengthen the back muscles with targeted exercises such as dog gymnastics. A dog sport that suits the breed is not only health-promoting, training together is fun for both humans and animals – and strengthens your bond.