My 5-year-old Toy Poodle suffered a ruptured disc. It was painful for her and expensive for me.
Fortunately, my regular veterinarian referred me to a topflight 24/7 emergency clinic where they had the equipment and surgeons to deal with this.
Her surgery was successful and seven weeks later, she is 99% back to normal (she may wobble when she squats to pee).
One thing I learned – don’t delay treatment; back injuries get worse quickly.
Standard protocol is that a dog that’s become paralyzed or unable to walk (because of disc rupture) must have surgery within 24-hours, ideally within 12-hours, to have a reasonable chance of full recovery. After 24-hours, the rate for recovery is less than 20 percent.
First indication something was wrong
In my dog’s case, she had been fine all day long until dinner time. I went to feed her and she was lying on the ground, panting heavily. She refused to eat so I knew something was wrong and packed her up for the vet.
She walked in the office fine but by the time we saw the vet, she couldn’t control her rear end. It was swaying as though she were drunk. The vet suspected a disc problem but like most family vets, did not have the imaging equipment to diagnose it. (Regular X-rays of the back will not show disc damage.)
Textbook explanation of what this is
Degenerative disc disease causes spontaneous degeneration of the outer part of the disc, resulting in sudden disc rupture or herniation (also called a "slipped disc").
It may not be related to injury, although the rupture frequently occurs after some sort of traumatic event, such as a fall or a relatively small jump. Although this act is frequently blamed for the disc rupture, the injury actually occurred due to chronic disc degeneration.
Most dogs with degenerative disc disease are middle-aged, from three to seven years old. There is likely a genetic predisposition to this disease.
Certain breeds, especially the Dachshund, Chihuahua, Poodle, Pekinese, Lhasa Apso, German shepherd, Doberman and Cocker Spaniel have a high incidence of Intervertebral Disc Disease (IVDD).
The family vet gave her a steroid/anti-inflammatory (Prednisone), pain medicine and ordered complete crate rest. He told me if she got worse to take her to a veterinary hospital where they have 24/7 surgery and every possible specialist including neurologists, oncologists and physical therapists for pets.
Within 24-hours, she wouldn’t walk and was dragging her little butt across the floor. It was heartbreaking to see. We headed for the high-tech hospital.
Surgery involves scrapping the ruptured disc material from the spinal area where it presses on the spinal column and causes extreme pain.
The hospital used imaging equipment, called a myelogram, to diagnose the problem. First the vet injected a special dye around the spinal cord of the anesthetized dog and then took a series of X-rays. The dye outlines the spinal cord, and a break in the dye column indicates where the pressure on the spinal column is so the surgeon knows where to operate.
The hospital did not want me to see her the first day after her surgery. Dogs get excited to see their owners and want to go home. The hospital, however, wants the dogs to rest after surgery so they ask owners to stay away until day two.
I did see my dog on the second day. She had a long bandage across her back and was sluggish. Although she was on pain medication, it was clear she did not feel well. Normally when she’s next to me, she’ll roll over on her side which is my clue to rub her tummy. This day she didn’t make any attempt to move.
The hospital had her stay two nights. A surgeon called me every morning to give me status on her condition and answer any questions I had.
I picked her up on the third day and the difference was amazing. Her tail started wagging when she saw me and she looked alert and happy.
I took her home with a sling that went around her rear end to relieve some of her weight when she walked. She had no medications to take but did have a patch on her back that fed her pain medicine.
My dog was to be crated and on full rest for a month. I took her out using the sling only to potty. I was fortunate that she was able to poop and pee on her own so I didn’t have to express her bladder as sometimes is required.
The only physical therapy she needed was for me to make a bicycle movement with her back legs three times a day for the month.
I was told to remove the pain medicine patch after five days and flush it away.
She used the sling for two weeks until her post-surgical follow-up appointment. The hospital removed her bandage and allowed me to stop using her sling. In fact, she was doing so well by then that the hospital said she didn’t need to come back unless something happened.
At the beginning of week five, I started taking her on short walks; otherwise she was in her crate or a playpen. Fortunately we have a ranch type home so there no stairs.
We gradually increased the time she was walking. By week seven, we were doing a 30-minute walk both morning and evening. Happily, I did not see any change in her personality.
The good news is that she will never have a problem with this disc again. The bad news is that another disc may rupture and require this type of surgery again.
(Note: if your dog ever needs this surgery, ask if the surgeon checks for other potentially bad discs where disc material could be removed.)
The total cost from onset to the day I took her home from the hospital: $3,700. After checking with friends, I discovered this is a typical cost and even lower than.
Help prevent further problems
Unfortunately, my dog is genetically predisposed to IVDD. The surgeon did recommend some steps that may help prevent another occurrence:
- Don’t let her jump up and down from furniture or other heights. Jumping down is harder on her back than jumping up
- Don’t carry her like a baby (so she’s vertical) as that puts a strain on her back. If you pick her up, carry her horizontally
- Maintain her ideal weight
- Keep walking her
- Use a harness to keep stress off her neck.
This was my dog’s story. I don’t know if it is typical for other dogs that suffer this. I am pleased with my dog’s outcome and relived I could find the money for the surgery. (I am going to address costs and ways to help with vet bills in a different article.)
What I haven’t done and won’t do is address alternate ways to treat IVDD or try to tell you when or when not to let your dog have back surgery.
You need to find an experienced vet you trust and listen to that person, not Dr. Google. There’s a reason practicing veterinary medicine without a license and over the Internet is illegal.