Injuries and diseases that affect the spine are quite dramatic and disabling. This supportive column of bone encases the nerve centers of communication to and from the brain.
Dogs can be affected by spinal conditions from the neck to the mid and lower sections of the spine.
The breeds most prone to mid and lower spine problems are the dwarf, or “chondrodystrophic” body types with short, bowed limbs. Examples are the Dachshund, Pekingese, Lhasa Apso, Corgi, and Basset Hound. Their spinal columns are disproportionally longer due to the disparate limb size, causing stress and strain.
Discs are spacers and shock absorbers, placed between each of the bony vertebrae.
They are round structures with outer walls that consist of cartilage rings with a soft jelly-like interior. The outer wall is called the “annulus fibrosus” and the inner substance is the “nucleus pulposus”.
The discs function as “spacers” providing room for the nerves branching off of the spinal cord to exit. They also function as “shock absorbers” to protect and shield these nerves from jolts and stress.
Discs become injured when they are weakened and result in a bulge or rupture, causing irritation to the nerve.
Discs weaken due to external pressures such as from
- poor posture
- weight gain
- loss of muscle tone and support
- bone spurs, etc.
Other contributing factors include trauma or twisting/turning injuries. The outer walls of the disc can crack and cause the inner “pulp” to break through to the outside.
If the damage is minor, the discs will bulge, but not break open.
If this is treated promptly, the bulge usually resolves and the disc returns to its normal shape.
When the damage is more significant, the disc will rupture and cause significant pain and irritation to the spinal nerves.
The canine spine consists of 3 sections
- cervical (neck)
- thoracic (ribs and middle section)
- lumbar (lower back).
Both dog and human have 7 cervical vertebrae, but the dogs have an additional thoracic and 2 more lumbar vertebrae. Thus a dog has 7 cervical, 13 thoracic and 7 lumbar vertebrae.
Eighty percent of intervertebral disc injuries occur between the first thoracic and the third lumbar vertebrae.
Here is how most veterinarians classify disc disease:
- Type 1: a total rupture of the outer wall, or annulus fibrosis, with massive break-through herniation of the inner nucleus pulposus.
- Type 2: a partial rupture, with gradual onset of symptoms. Disc bulges also fall into this category.
Type 2 disc diseases can be successfully treated conservatively with rest and medications.
This can include cage rest or reduced activity. Physical therapy can begin after the acute phase is over, in about 5 days.
Expect further testing such as MRI or myelogram before surgery is recommended so that the extent and level of a disc injury can be determined.
Cervical disc disease, occurring in the dog’s neck, is the second most common form of intervertebral disc problems.
They can be caused by trauma, rough neck movements from hard play or sports activity, or from degenerative conditions. Larger breeds, especially those at middle to senior ages, can develop degenerative discs which “settle”, like an old house into the ground. That causes vertical pressure on the disc and irritation to the nerves.
Physical therapy begins after a prescribed period of post-operative healing, which is usually at least two weeks.
Physical therapy will likely consist of
- heat or cold applications
- laser therapy
- electrical stimulation for pain relief or to facilitate muscle strengthening
- range of motion of the limbs
- home exercise instructions for you to follow, between sessions.
Limb and core body strengthening exercises are an essential part of therapy.
The common tools include propping cushions, bolsters, physiorolls, foam rolls, underwater treadmills, pool swimming, etc.
In cases where sensation is impaired, the dog may not feel if he/she is dragging their legs and abrasions along the top portion of the paw can occur. Devices can be used such as rubber toe grippers, traction booties, or pull-up stockings.
For the non-surgical cases, physical therapy includes more aggressive methods and techniques such as spinal joint mobilization and manipulation, manual “traction” to the neck or lumbar regions, active neck extension exercises encouraging the dog to look up, rolling activities, core stabilization, “tail pull” releases, all performed by a qualified trained therapist.
Prevention of disc disease, as well as recurrence, is vitally important for your dog and the family.
Here are my top 10 tips for helping to avoid strain on spinal discs:
1. Avoid the use of traditional dog collars.
Choose a supportive chest and thoracic harness for leash walking, hiking, and trotting
2. Use a rolled towel or round pillow placed under the curve of your dog’s neck when they are resting.
.They might not want to sleep with it but will tolerate it during naps and snuggle time with you and the family. Choose a size that matches the curve of the neck and it not “oversized”.
If the dog has lumbar, or low back problems, place a folded-over towel or flat pillow under their belly when lying on the stomach, or placed between the thighs if side lying.
3. Maintain a reasonable, lean weight for your dog, as advised by the veterinarian.
4. Avoid “dog doors” that require your pet to push it open using their nose or head.
Unless it is very easy to push, this activity can put pressure on the cervical discs.
5. Use ramps instead of steps for negotiating inclines.
Avoid jumping on/off furniture by blocking the area or using a small ramp.
6. Consider using soft cervical “collar” supports intermittently if your dog has moderate arthritis and degenerative disc disease of the neck.
These can be ordered from pet brace companies and worn off and on throughout the day to reduce jarring and irritation to the disc and spinal joints. These are different from “immobilization” collars which are used in cases of instability.
7. Elevated bowls.
Keep food and water bowls elevated to a proper height to avoid excessive neck “flexion”, which places pressure on the cervical discs if the dishes are low on the floor.
On the other hand, you want to avoid raising bowls too high which might “pinch” a nerve if bone spurs or arthritis are present. There is also a risk of air-intake causing bloat from eating or drinking from bowls placed too high, especially in the deep-chested dogs such as Boxers.
The best rule to follow in determining height elevation is: when your dog is standing and eating or drinking, their head should be in a straight line from their withers, or dipped just slightly below. If you were to place a vertical ruler extending straight out from the withers the top of your dog’s head should be just under it, bent down no more than 25 degrees.
Remember that the “withers” is the highest part of the dog’s shoulders, at the base, or bottom of the neck. So, you might have to purchase several stands to find the optimal height and return the other. For large breeds the heights usually range from 12-16 inches from the floor; medium sizes 6-10 inches, and small or toy breeds 3-6”.
8. Place a non-skid cushioned thin mat for your dog to stand on while eating and drinking.
This provides limb control and takes the strain off of the discs, generated by standing in 1 place on a hard floor.
9. Avoid heavy twisting, head shaking or tugging movements during play.
Some folks feel that “tug of war” is never a good mode of play for medical and behavioral reasons. I don’t necessarily agree with that but if your dog has a known spinal issue, I would avoid these types of play activities to keep their duration short and seldom!
10. Supportive therapies.
If your budget can afford, it may be wise to see a chiropractor or physical therapist, animal-trained of course, for some preventative joint manipulations, mobilizations, traction, and core strengthening exercises, on a monthly basis.