How to detect herniated discs in dogs
Just like humans, dogs can also suffer from herniated discs. Depending on where in the back the herniated disc is located and the extent of the damage, symptoms can range from pain to total paralysis. Some breeds, such as dachshunds and French bulldogs, are at a higher risk of developing herniated discs, but with the right treatment, many dogs can live pain-free and happy lives.
What is a herniated disc?
A dog's back is made up of vertebrae. Between each vertebra is a jelly-like disc of cartilage called a disc. The discs holds the vertebrae together, have a shock-absorbing effect and increase the mobility of the spine. With age, the elasticity and structure of the discs will naturally deteriorate. In some breeds this degradation occurs earlier. The disc then becomes more rigid and hard and can move upwards and press on the adjacent spinal cord. The disc may also eventually crack and the contents of the disc may leak out. Pressure on the spinal cord can cause varying degrees of pain, loss of sensation and in worst case, total paralysis. Where on the body the loss of sensation or paralysis is located depends on where in the spine the herniated disc has occurred and how much damage there is to the disc. Common locations for herniated discs are between the vertebrae at the border between the thoracic and lumbar spine (over the last three ribs), but the discs in the neck can also be affected.
When should I suspect my dog has a herniated disc?
Because herniated discs can vary in severity, the severity of symptoms also varies. In a milder case, severe pain from the back may be noticed but without loss of sensation or difficulty walking. The more severe cases, the more difficult it may be for the dog to move normally. In the worst cases, the dog may become paralysed and unable to move at all.
The following symptoms may indicate a herniated disc:
- The dog is hunched over and reluctant to move
- The dog screams when it bends its neck downwards, for example when it is about to eat
- Uncoordinated movements such as wobbliness or swaying
- Paralysis: usually occurs in the hind legs. The dog then drags its hind legs and sometimes they may lose the ability to control their bladder
What happens at the vet?
A vet will carry out a thorough examination of your dog and perform tests to assess nerve function. Many herniated discs are not visible on a normal X-ray as the cartilage that the discs are made of is not X-ray dense and so cannot be seen on a normal X-ray plate. Thus, more advanced diagnostic imaging such as an MRI or CT scan is needed to determine with certainty that a herniated disc has occurred. Another test that can be done is a contrast x-ray where a contrast agent is injected into the spinal canal to see where the narrowing of the spinal cord is located. If the disc herniation is mild, it is not certain that you will choose to proceed with more advanced investigations. This will be a case by case assessment by the vet in discussion with you as the pet owner.
Milder cases of herniated discs can often be treated at home with pain relief and rest. The dog should then be walked strictly on a lead and kept caged indoors to minimize movement which can further damage the back. The dog often feels better on painkillers and is therefore more willing to move around, which should be prevented. In dogs with more mild disc herniations, improvement is often seen within 2-8 weeks.
Surgery may be necessary in dogs with more severe herniated discs or dogs that have not responded to home treatment with rest and pain relief. It is a demanding operation and requires lengthy rehabilitation with physiotherapy afterwards. After surgery, the dog may have difficulty walking independently and urinating by themselves. The dog may therefore need to be hospitalised for several days in an animal hospital. Although recovery takes time, the prognosis for recovery and a pain-free life is good.