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Degenerative Disc Disease in Dogs

Picture of a older dog in greece

Depending on the severity of its symptoms, degenerative disc disease can be a life-changing condition for your dog.

Let’s learn more about it, including the breeds that are more predisposed to developing it, what its symptoms are, how it can be diagnosed, and what treatment options are available today.

What dog breeds are more predisposed?

Dogs within the age range of 3 to 7 are more prone to developing degenerative disc disease, but long, low-slung dogs are those that are particularly prone to getting it, as well as some other types of back problems. The condition can also be hereditary.

The breeds that are at risk of developing this issue are the Basset Hound, the Clumber Spaniel, the Dachshund, the Welsh Corgi, and the Petit Basset Griffon Vendeen.

Symptoms

To understand the symptoms, we first have to understand what degenerative disc disease really is. In a nutshell, it’s what happens when the fluid-filled discs between the vertebrae in your pet’s spinal column start to deteriorate and leak. With time, the discs will lose part or all of their shock-absorbing fluid and start to harden. This can eventually lead to a disc rupture, especially when the medical condition is not addressed in due time.

The clinical signs that you will notice largely depend on the severity of the disease and the stage it has reached. Dogs that are in the preliminary stages will be lethargic or act tired because physical exercise will cause the pain in their back and neck and as such, they will try to avoid it as much as possible.

However, as the disease becomes more severe, the dog might start to whimper or cry when touched and could start to walk stiff-legged. Some dogs will drag their back legs, especially when the disease has reached an advanced stage. Appetite loss, as well as shivering, can be two other symptoms that you might notice.

Diagnosis

At the clinic, the vet will perform a complete physical examination of your canine companion. However, this is not usually enough for an accurate diagnosis, and imaging methods are typically required for the purpose. X-rays can be particularly helpful when it comes to determining the extent of the spinal damage and its precise location.

The stage of the disease must be diagnosed, too, because the treatment depends on it.

Stage I is usually self-correcting in a few days and it only produces mild pain. Stage II causes moderate to severe pain and is present in the lumbar or neck area. Stage III can cause partial paralysis, in which case the dog starts being uncoordinated or walks in staggering movements. Stage IV is characterized by paralysis with the dog’s ability to feel present whereas stage V is when the dog is both paralyzed and has lost feeling.

Treatment of Degenerative Disc Disease

Dogs that are suffering from stage II and III of degenerative disc disease can be successfully treated with pain relievers, anti-inflammatory drugs, and exercise restriction. If the symptoms do not subside after seven days of treatment or if the neurological status of the animal declines from one day to the next, the logical treatment method that is elected is surgery.

Dogs with stage IV should have surgery, but there is a small percentage of the patients that can recover without it. Those with stage V should have surgery performed immediately. The prognosis is better the sooner the operation is performed. If your dog experiences paralysis and you know that he or she has degenerative disc disease, the recommendation is for the pet to have surgery performed within 24 hours.

The surgery has the purpose to remove pressure from the spinal cord. The procedure consists of creating a so-called ‘window’ in the side of the vertebral bone so as to expose the spinal cord and therefore, eliminate the pressure. The disc material is removed safely.

Treating disc disease has different success rates depending on whether surgery is performed or not. In most cases, dogs that have been performed surgery on have a much higher success rate than those that didn’t go through the procedure. You can tell that surgery was successful when your dog recovers his or her walking ability, experiences no pain, and when his or her neurological function returns. This could mean that you could wait for a couple of days to a couple of weeks or more to see the actual results.

Your dog is likely to be hospitalized for several days following the operation and that’s because both the bladder and the bowel control are often lost when the dog is paralyzed. It’s recommended that your dog remains hospitalized up to the point where those functions have returned. Both you and your dog need to stay motivated throughout the treatment, so we recommend that you visit your canine buddy every day.

Alternative treatments

Part of a complete recovery is ensured by physical therapy, so it is important for you to receive the right guidance that will allow you to perform the procedures at home. You might have to give your dog medication for some time, and you will also have to learn how to massage some of his body areas to further stimulate the recovery.

Many dogs that are in the early stages of degenerative disc disease can benefit from the use of acupuncture or chiropractic treatments. Surgery isn’t necessarily required in the early stages, but it could end up being the only logical treatment method if your dog’s condition worsens. Massage therapy can help alleviate pain in many dogs.

Of all of the therapies that exist nowadays, possibly the safest and most pleasant one of all is hydrotherapy. Especially if you have a somewhat older dog whose joints are achy, hydrotherapy can be an effective and safe form of exercise for all patients that have received treatment for degenerative disc disease or that are going to. Water maintains your dog’s body and doesn’t put so much pressure on any joint as walking or running do, for example, and that is why this type of treatment is highly recommended.

You have to make sure that your dog remains active without producing any damage to his or her spine. It is your responsibility, as the pet parent, to ensure that your canine friend’s weight remains within the normal range and that you protect Fido from overexertion.

Final thoughts

If your dog is diagnosed with degenerative disc disease, you have to have an honest talk with the vet to understand what the treatment options for your canine companion really are. In early stages, surgery might not be necessary, but you also have to understand that if your dog has a more severe form of the medical condition, surgery might be his or her only chance.

If your dog experiences paralysis, you have to take him to the vet as soon as possible. Performing surgery on a paralytic dog within the first 24 hours can be critical to the success rate of the operation and recovery.

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