Slipped Discs in Dogs: Prevention Measures and Alternative Treatment Options

Slipped discs are typically caused by either intervertebral disc disease or its degeneration (IVDD). When we talk about it medically, it is a herniation of a disc or discs in an area of the spine. The intervertebral discs are mostly made up of type II collagen and provide cushioning between vertebrae to absorb pressure put on the spine. Think of them as the tires of the spine because they are rubbery in nature, wear down by hardening and calcifying, start to bulge or rupture, and place pressure against the spinal canal or cord.

A slipped disc does not occur suddenly. IVDD is a chronic condition that happens slowly over time because the area around the disc is degenerating. It can lead to paralysis. Bear in mind, a sudden movement or fall could exacerbate the area and signs could be immediately present. For instance, let’s say you have a bad back and a car accident exacerbates the problem. 

IVDD is an umbrella term that encompasses different classifications or types of degeneration, the stages, as well as the area of the affected spinal column. So, it can affect many breeds and is considered the number one spinal dysfunction in all dogs.

Possibly the best and most known breed example is the Dachshund, of which approximately 15% of the breed displays signs. As Dachshunds have an exaggerated length compared to their height (chondrodystrophic is the scientific term), due to the fgf4 retrogene, which can contribute to IVDD in this breed. 

While geneticists are exploring how we can change breeding practices by eliminating certain genes without losing conformity or the purpose of a breed, that does not solve the problem of dogs currently prone to or affected with the disease. 

Although genes are important factors, It also has been shown that environmental and lifestyle risk factors can weigh heavily on how quickly IVDD progresses. 

As our readers know, we like preventative medicine over here at Hemopet

Some veterinarians believe that limiting activity in chondrodystrophic breeds such as the Dachshund will prevent disc herniation. We believe that approach is insufficient. 

Despite its benefits, limited physical activity can lead to muscle stiffness and wasting. One study found that Dachshunds that performed at least one hour of exercise per day were less prone to herniation than Dachshunds that exercised less than 30 minutes a day and were not allowed to jump. Indeed, human exercises these days focus on the core, but, If you do that, you need to support your spine.

Limited physical activity can also lead to obesity. However, a study of body condition score (BCS) for excess bodyweight was not shown to affect the risk of disc extrusions or protrusions. In contrast, a different study demonstrated that increased BCS has been associated with an increased disc extrusion risk. 

What is the difference? The easiest explanation is that an extrusion is a like a leakage or explosion of the dorsal annulus fibrosis – which holds the disc material in place – into the spinal canal. A disc protrusion occurs when the fibrosis remains intact but bulges against the cord. Considering the litany of other chronic diseases affected by obesity and bodyweight, we think it is best to keep your dog.

Of course, use of preventative medicine is essentially delaying the onset of disease. We do know that wear-and-tear over time may occur with IVDD, the severity of which can be mitigated. Indeed, not surprisingly, a survey found that Dachshunds between 8-10 years old were more likely to show symptoms and signs of IVDD than puppies. 

Remember, while we have focused on the Dachshund because of their high prevalence of IVDD and the excellent surveys conducted, other dogs can have IVDD too. 

Options for recovery from IVDD vary based on the severity. Surgery and cage rest are the most common, although surgery is invasive and can be risky. Plus, recurrence rates with this therapy are around 17.8%. 

One study showed that the conservative approach (cage rest) in combination with conventional medications did not achieve desired results in all the patients. Further, the study authors noted, “…Glucocorticoids may negatively impact success and quality of life. The duration of cage rest was not significantly associated with success or quality of life.”

The good news is that promising research involving re-balancing, underwater treadmills (UWTM), normal treadmills, laser therapy, acupuncture, and combinations of modalities are on the horizon. 

A 2021 study had several requirements for enrollment and several modalities were used: 

Study inclusion: 20 dogs total that were previously treated surgically, all were either tetraplegic (on all four limbs) or paraplegic. The dogs did not have superficial pain perception, but did perceive have deep pain. (By the way, dogs of all breeds and sizes were included.)

First portion of the study: All dogs were subjected to two weeks of exercises including functional electrical stimulation as well as interferential electrical stimulation for pain management. All exercises were performed with weight support according to the patient’s capacity at the time.

Second portion of the study: All dogs were now using land-based treadmills. 10 dogs had their body weight supported, while the other 10 did not.

Results: Ambulation was achieved in 100% of the dogs included in the “body weight-supported” treadmill training group during a 4.6 week period. But, only 78% of the dogs had functional recovery that rehabilitated on a traditional treadmill that was not body weight-supported in a 6.1 week period. 

These are amazing results! 


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