Treatment And Prevention Of Canine Intervertebral Disc Disease (Part I)

 by Susan E. Davis, PT  

Injuries and diseases that affect the spine are quite dramatic and disabling. This supportive column of bone which encases the nerve centers of communication to and from the brain provides a vital role in daily function for all animals.

Dogs can be affected by spinal conditions from the neck to the mid and lower sections of the spine.  

The dog breeds which are most prone to mid and lower spine problems are the dwarf, or "chondrodystrophic" body types, having short, bowed limbs. Examples are the Dachshund, Pekingese, Lhasa Apso, Corgi and Basset Hound. Their spinal columns are proportionally longer in length, 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, similar to those of a tree trunk, with a soft jelly-like interior. The outer wall is called the “annulus fibrosus” and the inner substance is the “nucleus pulposus”. The spinal column needs the discs as “spacers” to provide room for the nerves which branch off of the spinal cord to exit. It also needs the discs as “shock absorbers” to protect and shield these nerves from jolts and stress.

Discs become injured when they are weakened and result in a buldge or rupture, causing irritation to the nerve.  

The weakening is caused by external pressures from tumors, poor posture, weight gain, loss of muscle tone and support, bone spurs etc. It can also occur from trauma or twisting/turning injuries, which crack the outer walls of the disc and cause the inner “pulp” to break through to the outside.

If the damage is minor, the discs will simply buldge, but not break open.  

Herniated disc. Image Burlington Sports Therapy
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, like the human, consists of 3 sections: cervical (neck), thoracic (ribs and middle section) and lumber (lower back).  Both dog and human have 7 cervical vertebrae, but the dog has more 1 more thoracic and 2 more lumbar vertebrae, compared to people.  Thus a dog has 7 cervical, 13 thoracic and 7 lumber 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 buldges 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.

More serious cases such as Type 1 may need surgery such as: hemilaminectomy (thoracic-lumbar region) or dorsal decompression laminectomy (lumbar and sacral region).  

Expect further testing such as MRI or myelogram before surgery is recommended so that the extent and level of 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, which causes vertical pressure on the disc and irritation to the nerves.

These cases are usually treated conservatively at first, with corticosteroids, muscle relaxers, pain and anti-inflammatory medications.  If surgery is needed the method used is ventral slot technique and is approached from the front or “underside “of the vertebrae to remove bone and disc material for decompression of the nerve root.

Susan E. Davis (Sue) is a licensed Physical Therapist with over 30 years of practice in the human field, who transitioned into the animal world after taking courses at the UT Canine Rehabilitation program.  She is located in Red Bank, New Jersey.

She has been providing PT services to dogs and other animals through her entity Joycare Onsite, LLC in pet’s homes and in vet clinics since 2008.

She also provides pro bono services at the Monmouth County SPCA in Eatontown, NJ.  Sue is the proud “dog mommy” to Penelope, a miniature Dachshund with “attitude”.  For more information see her website , or follow on Twitter @animalPTsue.

Sue is also the author of a fantastic book on physical therapy, Physical Therapy And Rehabilitation For Animals: A Guide For The Consumer.  

Physical therapy can do so many great things for your dog. Understanding all the possibilities physical therapy can offer will change your dog's life. This book definitely belongs on the shelf of every dog lover.

Articles by Susan E. Davis:
Functional Strengthening Exercises: the What, Why and How
One Thing Leads To Another: Why The Second ACL Often Goes Too
Compensation: An Attempt To Restore Harmony
Paring Down to the Canine Core
Canine Massage: Every Dog ‘Kneads’ It”
Photon Power: Can Laser Therapy Help Your Dog?  
Physical Therapy in the Veterinary World  
Reiki: Is it real? 
Dog Lessons: Cooper  
The Essentials Of Canine Injury Prevention: 7 Tips For Keeping Your Dog Safer 
It's Not Just Walking, It's Therapy! 
Treatment And Prevention Of Canine Intervertebral Disc Disease (Part I)
Treatment And Prevention Of Canine Intervertebral Disc Disease (Part II Physical Therapy)
Range Of Motion: It’s A Matter Of Degree…
The Weight Of Water And How It Helps Dogs 
By Land or By Sea? A Comparison of Canine Treadmills 
Unraveling The Mystery Of Fascia And Myofascial Trigger Points (Part I)
Unraveling The Mystery Of Fascia And Myofascial Trigger Points (Part II) 
Scar Tissue: Is it Too Much of a Good Thing? 
Physical Therapy Tip Of The Month: Ramps! 
Physical Therapy Tip Of The Month: Indoor Duo Dog Exercises!
Physical Therapy Tip Of The Month: Best Practices After Your Dog’s Surgery
Further reading:
Intervertebral Disk Disease