Degenerative disk disease, also known as intervertebral disk disease, can affect your dog gradually or suddenly. You might not notice gradual symptoms, except that your dog is more quiet than usual and not running around. If intervertebral disk disease strikes quickly, your dog might not be able to walk. While the latter is a veterinary emergency, it's also important to take your dog to the veterinarian if his gait or behavior changes.
Intervertebral Disk Disease
Your dog's back consists of vertebrae protecting his spinal cord. Intervertebral disks serve as joints connecting these many bones. Every disk has a harder outer layer, with a squishy inner area and cartilage connecting it to the vertebrae. In disk degeneration, the outer layer ruptures or herniates. Certain breeds are more susceptible to disk degeneration, including the dachshund, shih tzu, beagle, cocker spaniel, poodle, Doberman pinscher, German shepherd and Pekingese. Small breed dogs often suffer from disk degeneration early in life, while degeneration usually occurs in larger breeds in middle age.
Diagnosing Disk Disease
Your vet diagnoses your dog's intervertebral disk disease via X-rays or a myelogram, a procedure in which dye is injected around the spinal cord to make intervertebral disk disease more visible when X-rays are taken. Your vet also might perform a computed tomographic scan on your dog. With these tests and your dog's physical symptoms, she can find the location and stage the severity of the disorder, on a scale from 1 to 5, with 5 indicating paralysis and incontinence. Note that some veterinary hospitals use a grading system that approximates the staging system but with opposite values, so that 5 indicates a normal dog.
Medication and Rest
In some dogs, medication and rest can manage intervertebral disk disease, at least for a while. That's especially true in canines diagnosed at stage 1 or 2. Your dog requires confinement for several weeks, staying primarily in a cage or crate and brought out briefly for potty breaks. Your veterinarian will prescribe pain medication, most likely nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. If rest and medication don't work, surgery is your best option. Even if your dog does respond to this treatment, the odds of a recurrence run between 30 and 40 percent, according to the Merck Veterinary Manual.
For best results, dogs with stage 3 status should undergo surgery, while an operation is basically imperative for those with a diagnosis of stage 4 or 5, if you want your pet to walk again. Dogs unable to walk need surgery quickly, within 48 hours of paralysis. The type of surgery chosen is based on the location of the ruptured disk and the affected vertebrae. Your vet will refer you to an appropriate veterinary neurosurgeon for the procedure. While surgery doesn't benefit all dogs, many regain the ability to walk. Recuperation can take weeks or months, and it isn't always readily apparent whether the dog will recover. Your dog requires physical therapy during his recovery period. Ask your vet for recommendations for a suitable physical therapist who makes home visits and can teach you the exercises necessary for your pet's well-being.
Jane Meggitt has been a writer for more than 20 years. In addition to reporting for a major newspaper chain, she has been published in "Horse News," "Suburban Classic," "Hoof Beats," "Equine Journal" and other publications. She has a Bachelor of Arts in English from New York University and an Associate of Arts from the American Academy of Dramatics Arts, New York City.