Degenerative Spine Disease in Dogs

Written by shannon m. beck
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Canine degenerative disk disease and degenerative myelopathy are two common degenerative spinal diseases in dogs. "Degenerative" means that the onset is gradual rather than sudden, and depending on the case, "gradual" can mean a few hours up to a few weeks. While canine degenerative disk disease is actually a disease of the spinal disks, and degenerative myelopathy is a disease of the spinal cord itself, both are thought to be hereditary and affect certain breeds more than others.

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Canine Degenerative Disk Disease

Canine degenerative disk disease occurs when a spinal disk slowly deteriorates and bursts.
Spinal disks are rubbery structures filled with a gel-like liquid that act as pads between vertebrae and aid in protecting the spinal cord. When the disk bursts, it is most often on the side closest to the spinal cord because that is where the walls of the disk are thinnest. When this happens, the gel-like liquid inside escapes and puts pressure on the dog's spinal cord. It is this pressure that will cause pain and possible paralysis in the dog. You may notice that your dog seems to be less willing to move around due to the pain, or may have lost the ability to use two or all of its legs. Breeds that are commonly effected by degenerative disk disease include the Dachshund, Pekinese, Lhaso Apso and the Cocker Spaniel.

Phases and Treatment of Degenerative Disk Disease

Canine degenerative disk disease is categorised into five stages that partially determine how your veterinarian will go about treatment. Stage I is the most mild, and often will correct itself. The pain associated with this stage of the disease is mild enough that it is possible for your dog to be in this condition without you ever knowing about it. Stage II of the disease is associated with a more moderate pain, but no paralysis, while stage III is the first stage where you would see some paralysis. In stage III, the paralysis will be partial, and will likely appear as though your dog has lost coordination. Most veterinarians treat stages II and III with anti-inflammatory medication.
Stage IV is evidenced by a paralysis where your dog has lost movement abilities, but can still feel. Stage V is the most severe. In this stage, your dog will have lost both movement and feeling. Your veterinarian will likely suggest surgery if your dog is in stage IV or V. The goal of surgery is to remove pressure from the spinal cord. With proper treatment, your dog's chances of total recovery from the disease range from 20 to 95 per cent, depending on the stage of the disease at the time of treatment and how long your dog has had the rupture prior to treatment. Contacting a veterinarian as soon as possible is key to recovery.

Degenerative Myelopathy

Degenerative myelopathy is characterised by the gradual dying of the spinal cord.
While the cause of the disease is unknown, the dying of the spinal cord in degenerative myelopathy is a reaction to the breakdown of a membrane that surrounds it, called the myelin sheath. The first sign of this disease is normally a dragging of the dog's back feet. If your dog is doing this, it will be noticeable in its back toenails. You may also notice decreased movement of your dog's tail, weakness in the hind legs, or difficulty urinating or defecating. Degenerative myelopathy is most common in German Shepherds, but has been seen in a handful of other large dogs and in Welsh Corgis. Onset has been seen in dogs as young as five years old, but is most common between nine and 11 years of age.

Diagnosis of Degenerative Myelopathy

Because there is no real test for degenerative myelopathy, diagnosis will consist of your veterinarian running a series of tests for other neurological diseases to rule them out.
Your veterinarian will likely also consider your dog's breed when determining if degenerative myelopathy is likely to be what is ailing your pooch. Tests run by your veterinarian may include a myelography, an MRI and a CAT scan.

Treatment for Degenerative Myelopathy

There is no way to cure degenerative myelopathy. Treatment for this disease focuses instead on preventing the disease from progressing. Common ways of preventing progression include medication, exercise and vitamin supplements. Aminocaproic acid and N-acetylcysteine are the two drugs veterinarians use to treat this disease. In some cases, progression has not only been slowed by these drugs, but dogs have gone into remission from the disease. Vitamins B, E and C, yeast, selenium and Omega-3 fatty acids may also help in slowing down the progression of degenerative myelopathy, but always consult your veterinarian before supplementing your dog with anything, as many supplements can have negative effects if not used properly. Your veterinarian will also help you in developing an appropriate exercise program for your dog.

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