Dog News

Canine Intervertebral Disk Disease

by Shawn Finch, DVM

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Back problems are so common in Dachshunds that at a recent lecture by a noted local veterinary surgeon, his entire “prevention” advice was “Don’t get a Dachshund.”  I am sure he was kidding.  Dachshunds are of course, otherwise perfect.  However, if you have Dachshund or another long, short, twisty legged family member, you may at some point deal with back issues.

Princess and Lady SchusslerPrincess and Lady Schussler

This article is for the following groups, which I would guess encompasses all of us…

  •  Those of you whose dog has a diagnosis of Hansen Type I thoroacolumbar intervertebral disk disease from your veterinarian and a treatment plan firmly in place
  • Those of you who have been through this or a similar condition with your own pet and can offer empathy to group 1
  • Those of you would not attempt to diagnose nor treat your dogs at home, but would rather  tuck your cute little pet under your arm and immediately head to the veterinary hospital to have an examination done at the first sign of discomfort, back or otherwise
  • Those of you like me who like to learn stuff about things


Elliott Carmichael

Elliott Carmichael

Big Stupid Medical Words

Chondrodystrophic – long, short and twisty-legged

     chondro – cartilage

     dystrophic – abnormal development

The same condition that gives long, short and twisty-legged dogs their super cute shape also determines the make-up of their intervertebral disks, making them more prone to disk trouble than other dogs.

Hansen’s Type I Thoracolumbar Intervertebral Disk Disease – Stick with me!  We will go through each of those words one at a time till they all make sense!

Hansen Type I – acute (fast) onset, involves disk rupture, this is the type that is most common and that chondrodystrophic dogs typically have

Hansen Type II – chronic (slow) onset and progression, involves disk bulging, this is more common in larger breeds such as Labs and is less common overall

Thoracolumbar – between the thorax (chest) and the back – the area right in the middle of a dog’s back.  This is the area in which disk disease most commonly occurs, the next most common area in which disk disease occurs is the neck

Intervertebral – between the vertebrae (backbones)

Disk versus Disc – both are correct, but I use “disk” here because “disc” looks weird to me

Intervertebral Disks – The little circular shock absorbers, one between each backbone, that help prevent injury and allow flexability.  Each disk is made of a fibrous outer ring called the annulus fibrosus and a jelly-like inner part called the nucleus pulposus.  When disks stay in place and remain healthy, they are amazing little things with just the right balance of squishy (nucleus pulposus) and firm (annulus fibrosus) to do everything they need to do.

Lady SchusslerLady Schussler

I Wish That Were the End of the Story.  I Would Have Called This Article “Intervertebral Disks are Awesome.”

Trouble occurs when the fibrous outer ring (annulus fibrosus) of an intervertebral disk degrades, allowing the squishy part (nucleus puplosis) to extrude up into the spinal canal, causing blunt force trauma and/or impingement of the spinal cord.

Possible Signs of Intervertebral Disk Disease

  • back, neck and/or leg pain
  • crying
  • lethargy
  • reluctance or inability to do normal activities
  • a hunched back – may look like a tummy ache
  • ataxia (wobbliness)
  • dragging the feet
  • loss of function of the hind legs
  • loss of function of all four legs
  • Urinary retention or incontinence
  • Trouble defecating
  • inability to stand
  • inability to move
  • no pain sensation in the limbs
Of course, each of these signs alone or in combination can be signs of many different conditions, not just disk disease, so any of the above warrants a trip to the veterinarian.

Run, Don’t Walk, to Your Veterinarian’s Office (or…Drive)

Time is of the essence in obtaining a diagnosis and starting therapy.  Further movement could worsen the injury.  Delay of treatment – especially if surgery is needed – could worsen the prognosis.  If a dog needs surgery, a veterinary neurologist or veterinary surgical specialist will be utilized to remove the extruded disk material from the area of the spinal canal where it is pressing on the spinal cord.  The sooner this occurs, the less damage to the spinal cord is likely to be done and the better the prognosis.

The veterinarian will use the history and clinical signs to make a diagnosis, localize the lesion and assess the degree of injury.  From there, the veterinary team and family can come up with the best treatment plan – including whether to treat medically or surgically, and the veterinarian can give a preliminary prognosis.

Strict Rest

The cornerstone of recovery after any therapy, medical or surgical, will be strict rest, usually for several weeks.

  • No running
  • No jumping
  • No playing
  • No walks
  • No stair climbing, up or down
  • Out to potty on a leash only

What a pain!  But it is so crucial to recovery from intervertebral disk disease, that normally kind hearted and easy going veterinarians will insist that you and your dog invest several weeks post injury, as frustrating as it may be, in as little activity as possible in order  to increase the odds of recovery.


The best outcome, of course, is return to complete function with no pain.  The next best outcome is return to almost complete function – the ability to stand and walk well, even with wobbliness or neurological issues with no pain.

Some dogs with disk disease may have partial paralysis and urination and defecation difficulties, even after appropriate and timely treatment.  Consider these factors:

  • Is our family prepared for our dog’s challenges?  These may include the need to alter the environment to aid mobility, using a cart to compensate for decreased or absent hind end function, expressing the urinary bladder and preventing pressure sores and urinary scald through at home nursing care.
  • Can our dog’s pain be adequately managed or eliminated all together?
  • Does our dog have the quality of life he or she should have?


May your long pets have healthy intervertebral disks and enjoy long, healthy lives.

Princess SchusslerPrincess Schussler


Thoesen, Mike. Spinal Lesion Localization in the Surgical Back.  Continuing Education Lecture, Omaha, 18 September 2011.

Shires, Peter. “Thoracolumbar Intervertebral Disc Disease.” In Blackwell’s Five-Minute Veterinary Consult:  Canine and Feline, edited by L. Tilly and F. Smith. Ames:  John Wiley & Sons, 2011.

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