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Four Short Legs and a Long Back Are Cute, But Beware of Back Problems

Pet Column for the week of February 22, 2010

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Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Ashley Mitek
Information Specialist

Source - Wanda J. Gordan-Evans, DVM, PhD, DACVS
Anyone who has seen a dachshund can easily tell why they are often called a "hot dog." Although they can make wonderful pets, dachshunds along with several other breeds like beagles, corgis, and basset hounds, are predisposed to intervertebral disk disease (IVDD). If only they had a fifth leg under their bellies to support their weight.

Dr. Wanda Gordon-Evans is an orthopedic surgeon at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana. She explains that there are two types of IVDD and, "the most common type we see is that in chondrodystrophic breeds," which are breeds with abnormal cartilage formation like those mentioned above.

In these dogs, the disk may degenerate over time and make it more likely that the jelly-like center of the disk will burst into the spinal cord. When this happens the spinal cord may become compressed, which can have some serious ramifications.

In the non-chondrodystrophic breeds, a different type of IVDD is seen. "The tough outside of the disk bulges into the spinal canal and presses on the spinal cord," notes Dr. Gordon-Evans. They typically present with clinical signs much slower in onset than the chondrodystrophic breeds whose disk usually "squirts" traumatically into the spinal canal.

It is not that uncommon for a dachshund to come into the small animal emergency room at the Teaching Hospital unable to move its legs. After clinicians perform a physical exam, knowing in the back of their mind that this is very likely an IVDD case, a special series of imaging studies are ordered to confirm that one of the discs has burst out of the spinal canal. These images are then incredibly useful for the surgeon--who then knows where to go to fix the problem.

But not all dogs with IVDD will experience an acute paralysis in the hind end. Owners may notice difficulty in walking or back or neck pain. In these cases Dr. Gordon-Evans says, "we always warn owners that even dogs that can still walk may get worse over time." Instead of going right to surgery, a strictly medical approach can be used. Pain relieving medications are given along with instructions to confine the animal for six weeks. But if the patient's pain or abnormal gait is not improving, surgery is necessary.

Although finding your dog unable to move its legs and the thought of back surgery can be frightening, the success rates are very high for the procedure. "The prognosis for walking again is approximately 90 percent," notes Dr. Gordon-Evans, "unless they have lost all sensation in their legs within the last 24 hours, then the probability goes down to 50 percent."

In the end, if you do find your dog paralyzed or walking funny, do not delay seeking veterinary treatment. By the time you get your pet to the local veterinarian and they determine that it is indeed IVDD, you will most likely be referred to an orthopedic surgeon. And, unless you happen to live around the corner from the Teaching Hospital in Urbana, you may be in for a road trip.