Pets with disabilities such as spinal cord injuries face a short list of treatments. Most dogs, who suffer from a spontaneous ruptured disk are given two options for recovery: euthanasia or expensive surgery. The "herniated disc" is a common back injury in people who take a fall or strain their backs. Likewise, dogs can suffer from herniated vertebral discs that can lead to severe pain or paralysis. Though these spinal injuries in dogs can be serious, there are effective treatments, such as physical rehabilitation, such as swimming and surgery.
Between each pair of vertebrae there sits an intervertebral disc, which you can compare to a jelly donut. "An outer fibrous ring called the annulus fibrosis is like the cake donut, and it is filled with a dense, shock-absorbing material called the nucleus pulposus, which is like the jelly."
If the "jelly" becomes calcified and hard, it loses its shock-absorbing capacity. Pressure or trauma can cause the calcified material to bulge or explode into the nearby spinal canal, which houses the spinal cord, a process called herniation. The resulting pressure on the spinal cord can result in clinical signs ranging from pain to complete loss of feeling and function of the limb.
Classically, there are two types of disc herniation: "disc extrusion" occurs when the nucleus pulposus explodes into the spinal canal and "disc bulging" is when the nucleus pulposus protrudes into the spinal canal. This latter type is the type commonly suffered by people.
Some dog breeds, particularly "dwarf" breeds with long bodies and short legs (such as Basset hounds, dachshunds, and Pekingese), are prone to disc extrusion as they experience a condition know as chondroid metaplasia, where the discs begin to deteriorate and calcify as early as one year of age. Large breed dogs (such as Labradors, German shepherds, and Doberman Pinschers) are more prone to disc protrusion, similar to what is seen in people.
The clinical signs stemming from the disc herniation depend upon the location of the injury; a disc injury in the lower back can cause problems only in the hind limbs, whereas an injury in the neck can cause dysfunction in all limbs. With spinal injuries, neurological function is lost in a specific order, and the chance for recovery is greatly influenced by seeking prompt medical attention.
Dogs have high pain thresholds and an instinct not to reveal when they’re in pain. After all, in the wild, the obviously injured animal is the one that gets picked off by the predators. But if you pay attention, you can sometimes tell if your dog is in pain from a disk injury.
Look for the following warning signs of spinal disk injury:
Shivering — especially when combined with unusual inactivity
Refusal to get up and play, even for food
A yelp when you pet your dog or try to pick them up
A pulled-in head, arched back, or any other strange position
A refusal to bend down to the food or water dish to eat or drink
Limping of any kind
A “drunken” rear end, which moves but looks as if it isn’t completely under control
Dragging of the back legs
If your dog shows any of these warning signs, call your vet immediately. In the case of dragging the back legs or showing any other signs of paralysis or severe pain, drive immediately to the vet’s office or nearest pet emergency facility. Something’s you can wait for but this not one of them. Don’t wait.
The treatment for disc herniation depends on the degree and duration of neurological dysfunction. For mild disc injuries with no loss of strength or voluntary movement, a veterinarian will prescribe rest and limited activity, just as a human doctor advises against heavy lifting or other activity that may stress the spine.
For animals that have not responded to conservative management or who have had multiple relapses of clinical signs of disc disease or have paresis or weakness of the limbs, surgery is a likely recommendation. Before surgery, diagnostic imaging such as an MRI, myelogram, or CT scan will be performed to confirm the cause and location of problem.
Decompression surgery can relieve pressure on the spinal cord caused by disc debris. The veterinarian creates a hemilaminectomy, similar to a surgical "sunroof," out of the bone overlying the spinal cord and removes the problematic disc material, relieving pressure on the spinal cord. Over 90 percent of dogs improve with this surgery, if medical attention is prompt and the degree of neurological impairment is not too severe. Both extrusion and bulge herniations can be treated with decompression surgery.
In short, you have just hours to act. Immediate surgery on a dog with a ruptured disk (where the disk is torn and the inner matter, called the nucleus, leaks out) has a much better success rate than a similar surgery on a human. For dogs still feeling pain (a good sign that the spinal cord is still functioning), the success rate for restoring function is 90 percent. The success rate is 50 percent for dogs experiencing total paralysis, as long as the dog was feeling pain within the last 24 hours. But if you wait longer than 24 hours after a disk injury, the success rate plummets to a meagre 5 percent. If that isn’t reason enough to rush your injured dog to treatment, nothing is.
In lieu of or in addition to surgery, rehabilitation (known as physical therapy in human medicine) can be an essential part of spinal injury treatment. Depending on the cause of the spinal cord injury, treatment may be crate rest, physical therapy, surgery or supportive care. Supportive care is often the only option, though physical therapy, especially swimming, may help. Acupuncture has also been reported to ease pain and increase mobility. The aim of the rehabilitation, whether you involve underwater treadmills, canine hydrotherapy and exercises are all designed to strengthen muscles and the neurological function in your dog.
Unfortunately, disc herniation is an injury that can happen repeatedly, in different vertebrae, especially in breeds that are predisposed. The most common sites for disc herniation are the lower back and neck areas, where the immobile rib cage joins areas of high movement, causing stress on those vertebrae.
Owners of dwarf-breed dogs or other dogs that are predisposed can minimize risk of disc injuries or avoid repeated episodes by keeping their dogs weight down. Excess body weight adds biomechanical load and stress on the discs. A lean, well-muscled, and fit dog is also better able to recover from injuries if they occur, so daily moderate exercise is a must. Also, use a chest and back support harness such as ours instead of attaching a dog leash and collar that can pull suddenly on the neck. If possible, avoid sudden stops and starts that can stress the spine, such as launching off sofas. Training a small dog not to jump off sofas can curb risky habits.
Thankfully, nowadays a lot of people have opted for a different approach if the dog has a spinal injury. There are TWO options; A wheeled cart that fits to the hind legs to aid in mobility, a solution that, while helpful keeps the dog somewhat mobile, but is still difficult for both guardian and dog. These dog carts have been designed so the dog sits within the seat of the cart with their hind legs tucked up underneath them – normally held up by straps. Due to the lack of mobility you DO OFTEN SEE muscle wastage occurring. These carts are really suitable for dogs who are permanently paralysed.
Now, dogs handicapped by spinal cord injuries may have another option rather than just the dog carts. A special harness invented and sold by us is now available. Our dog harness works by the walker taking some of the weight off the dog. This allows the dog to walk for longer periods – which in turn helps the dog to build up muscle and retain the levels.
"Most importantly, owners should not feel guilty. Disc injuries are never really anyone’s fault but rather a function of how the animal is built. Dogs are not ashamed or frustrated by physical limitations. If he is otherwise healthy and happy, consider purchasing adaptive equipment, such as the Quincys harness or the wheelchair-like carts designed especially for dogs, to make him more mobile."
For more information about disc herniation or other spinal injuries, contact your local veterinarian.