One of the results of improved pet care is seeing our pets live to very ripe old ages.
The aging of a pet brings with it health challenges. One such challenge is the arthritis and back ailments of the older dog. A dog experiencing back pain often acts stiff and will avoid walking. In many of these cases, the pet has not experienced any specific incident that would have been the cause of the injury.
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The backbone is a flexible structure of bony vertebrae lined up with little disc cushions between them that allow the back to flex. These discs are normally soft and mucoid.
With aging comes disc degeneration. The disc can fibrosis and harden, making it susceptible to rupture. When the rupture occurs, it puts pressure on the spinal cord and the main nerve branches that lead off the spinal cord.
While dachsunds represent about 65 percent of the cases, any dog can have this problem.
Disc ruptures usually happen in the mid-back or neck area. The symptoms depend on the location and severity of the rupture. Think of the spinal cord as having three layers. The outermost layer is responsible for proprioception. This is the ability to know where the legs are without seeing them. The next deeper layer is the motor layer. It controls coordinated movement such as walking. The deepest most center of the cord is pain perception.
Superficial damage will cause proprioceptive deficits such as dragging the foot when walking. Damage that goes a little deeper causes staggering and crossing over of the legs. It can progress to not being able to stand or walk at all. This is known as being “down in the back.” Damage that has reached the center of the spinal cord will cause loss of pain sensation. Loss of “deep pain” signals irreversible damage to the spinal cord. The dog may never recover the ability to use its limbs.
In addition to knowing how deep into the spinal cord the injury goes, it is important to notice where on the back the injury is. This is called “localizing” the injury. If it is in the neck, the head may be lowered and held stiffly in place. The front legs may drag, or be stiff.
If it is in the waist area of the back, the back can be bowed up or the pet just wants to sit and not move. The bread can be so great that dogs sometimes scream or bite when you try to pick them up.
Treatment is aimed at relieving the pressure on the spinal cord as quickly as possible. Steroids to relieve swelling of the spinal cord and pain medicines for the pain will ease some discomfort. If the symptoms are mild, strict cage rest is prescribed with no jumping or stairs. Disc injuries take at least six weeks to stabilize.
If improvement is not seen with conservative therapy or if the condition has progressed to impaired motor function, back surgery by a board-certified veterinary surgeon is the only option. The prognosis for recovery improves with early treatment of the disease. Some cases that go to surgery may always have a wobbliness to the gait because of damage incurred to the spinal cord.
After surgery, the disc involved should not be a problem; unfortunately, there are many other discs that could potentially rupture in the future. Once a dog has had a ruptured disc, he should be restricted from jumping and going up and down stairs.