Moderate herniated disc cases typically respond well to conservative treatment such as confined rest with supportive medications, while more serious cases require surgical repair. The earlier the pain-causing condition is diagnosed and treated, the greater the likelihood of a full recovery.
The Herniated Disc
A dog’s spinal cord is encased in a series of bony structures called vertebrae. In between each vertebra is a rubbery cushion called an intervertebral disc that acts as a shock absorber and prevents the vertebrae from rubbing against each other. As a dog ages, the bones of the spinal column begin to degenerate and weaken. As a result of this weakening process or perhaps due to a traumatic event such as a fall or twisting of the spine, the outer shell of the disc will rupture and the soft spongy material inside the disc will leak out and push against the spine. This is a herniated disc.
Most dogs with degenerative disc disease are 3 to 7 years old. Certain breeds, especially those with a longer back compared with the rest of their body like dachshunds, Pekinese, Lhasa apsos and basset hounds, typically have a higher incidence rate of herniated disc than other breeds. This is due to the extra strain an elongated body places on the backbone. Overweight dogs are also more prone to this condition.
Herniated Disc Diagnosis
Your vet may suspect a herniated disc if your dog is showing symptoms such as back or neck pain; reluctance to walk, to play or to go up or down stairs; lack of coordination; lameness or paralysis; or reluctance to turn the head or lower the head to eat or drink, especially if the dog has had a recent trauma incident or is one of the breeds prone to disc damage.
Your vet may take X-rays to help diagnose the problem, but because the actual discs and spine do not show up on regular X-rays, she may opt to perform a myelogram. A myelogram is a series of X-rays taken after injecting the dog with a contrast dye to outline the spine and discs. Other technologies for diagnosing a ruptured disc include computed tomography scans and magnetic resonance imaging.
If your vet diagnoses a herniated intervertebral disc, you'll want to take measures to relieve his discomfort and promote healing. In many cases, your vet will simply prescribe confinement for a period of time to allow the body to heal. You’ll need to provide a suitable crate or enclosure that limits movement. Make it as comfortable as possible, as he will be spending the majority of his time there. Gently lift your dog from the crate for potty breaks, or coax a larger dog out of the crate with a leash. The length of the dog’s confinement will vary based on the severity of the condition.
Your vet will likely prescribe pain medications such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and corticosteroids. The steroids not only reduce inflammation but can heal some of the spinal damage caused by bruising and swelling.
Applying heat to the area can reduce inflammation and pain. Alternative therapies such as gentle massage, acupuncture and physical therapy may also provide relief. If your dog is overweight, your vet will likely suggest a weight-control regimen, which can greatly enhance healing and reduce the chances of recurrence.
In more severe cases of disc herniation, or those that don’t respond to conservative treatment, surgery may be necessary to remove the disc material that is putting pressure on the spine. You’ll need to confine the animal for at least four weeks, perhaps change to a halter rather than a neck collar, and follow post-op instructions from your vet. Prognosis will vary according to the severity of the disease, but it is typically good if the dog was still walking when the surgery is performed.