The vet’s office: Spinal disk disease in cats and dogs
By Dr. Elizabeth Knabe, DVM
Wildwood Animal Hospital and Clinic LLC
Dogs and cats have disks between each individual vertebral bone in their spinal column. These disks function as a cushion as stress is transferred down the spinal bones during movement.
A normal disk has a tough outer ring of many layers of cartilage and a gel-like inner section that can absorb more pressure. The gel section hardens with age and becomes less flexible. The outer rings can degenerate with time and develop weakened areas that let some of the gel slip out between the layers.
In spinal disk disease, some of the disk material has come out of its normal position due to a rupture of the disk and is now pressing on the spinal cord or the larger nerves that come out from it.
Dogs and cats cannot tell us that their back or neck suddenly hurts or that they have been experiencing tingling of nerves going down their legs. They cannot tell us that the muscles surrounding their spine are in painful spasms due to irritation of the nerves.
What they will show us is a variety of signs, including reluctance to move or to climb up on furniture, weakness in one or both back legs, or even a sudden paralysis of the hind limbs.
Some of the risk factors for developing disk disease include age and breed. The dachshunds and other breeds with shorter legs have a genetically programmed condition where the cartilage of the disks degenerates — even in young dogs. Other cases may develop from overuse injuries to the spine from repetitive movements that weaken the supporting tissues. Obesity and inactivity can also contribute as weakened muscles do not offer much support, and excess weight puts additional pressures on the spine.
Owners should contact their veterinarians immediately if they see signs of disk disease as earlier treatments may reduce the chances of negative outcomes. The treatments will depend on the diagnosis and may involve medications and restriction of activity for milder cases. Serious cases may require surgery to remove the material compressing the spinal cord.
Not all back and neck pain is caused by problems with the spinal disks, but it is common enough that we want to make pet owners aware of it so they get help for their pets as early as possible.
Wildwood Animal Hospital and Clinic LLC is located at 210 Airpark Road in Marshfield and online at wildwoodanimalhospital.net.