Spinal disc problems in dogs

Updated November 21, 2016

Spinal disc disease is common and most often occurs in middle-aged or older dogs. Early diagnosis and treatment is essential to preventing permanent neurological damage. Treatment can be either medical or surgical and in combination with physical therapy. Whichever method is chosen, patience is required to allow the disc to heal properly. Your dog's chances for full recovery are excellent with proper treatment and care.


Intervertebral (between the vertebrae) discs act as spinal shock absorbers. A disc typically has two sections: a gel-filled centre and an outer fibrous ring. It turns degenerative when the gelatinous material calcifies into a gritty substance that can no longer cushion vertebral movements. The disc centre then becomes prone to bulge and rupture into the spinal canal, resulting in spinal pressure, pain and paralysis. Small dog breeds with long bodies and short legs, such as dachshunds, are prone to the form of spinal disc disease referred to as "disc extrusion". Disc extrusion occurs when the disc centre explodes into the spinal canal. Large breed dogs, such as Labradors, are more prone to "disc bulging". Disc bulging occurs when the disc centre protrudes into the spinal canal but does not explode.

Signs of Spinal Disc Problems in Your Dog

Signs will vary depending on the location of the problem. With cervical (or neck) disc disease, sudden onset of neck pain is usually the first sign that something is wrong. As the discs in this region can affect a dog's front and back legs, clumsiness or an inability to walk also indicate presence of the disease. One or both sides of the body may be affected. A lower back disc injury can present only in the hind legs. Neurological function is lost in a particular order and the dog owner should seek veterinary help immediately for the greatest chance of recovery. In the first stage, the dog loses its ability to locate its limbs. Next, the dog will lose its ability to move its legs and, finally, it will lose the ability to feel its legs. The neck and lower back regions are the areas most commonly affected by spinal disc disease. These are not only the areas of greatest movement, but also where the immobile rib cage meets the spine, causing the greatest amount of stress on the discs.

Diagnosis of Spinal Disc Disease

Your veterinarian will perform a general physical examination then concentrate on assessing your dog's neurological functions. X-rays will help to locate the affected area, but a definitive diagnosis can best be obtained through a myelogram, a procedure in which dye is injected into the spinal canal to confirm spinal compression. A CT scan can be used in place of a myelogram if your veterinarian has access to the proper equipment.

Treatment of Spinal Disc Disease

Treatment depends on the severity of the condition. Early stage spinal disc disease may be treated medically, whereas more advanced cases may require surgery. Medical treatment may consist of enforced cage rest for several weeks, an anti-inflammatory and muscle relaxant to avoid spasms. Rest is essential to allow formation of a scar over the top of the disc; herniation may occur if activity is resumed too quickly. Surgery to relieve pressure on the spinal cord is the likely treatment for animals that experience recurring spinal disc problems. Your veterinarian will order an MRI, myleogram or CT scan prior to surgery to confirm the location of the problem. Physical therapy such as underwater treadmills and specific exercises to strengthen muscles and nerves can be prescribed either on its own or in conjunction with surgery. It takes time to recover from a spinal injury. Whichever course of treatment is chosen, it is important to remain patient with your dog's progress.

Preventive Measures

Your dog should maintain a correct weight for his breed to keep spinal stress to a minimum. His fitness will also speed his recovery should injury occur. Using a harness instead of a buckle collar also decreases stress on the neck area when you have your dog on leash.

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