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Need To Know: Disc Disease and Spinal Cord Injury in Dogs


By:  Dr. Ed Darrin, Board Certified Veterinary Neurologist at CARES
Langhorne, PA

Spinal cord injuries are common in dogs, and the most common type of spinal cord injury is a disc herniation.  Disc herniations can cause anything from minor discomfort to complete paralysis.  Rapid detection and treatment are often the difference between a full recovery and permanent damage.

As a pet owner, it is important to be able to recognize signs of a disc herniation or other spinal cord injury. Following are some common signs:

●    Arching of the back

●    Holding the neck stiff or refusal to turn or lift the head

●    Weakness of the legs (most often the hind legs, but any combination is possible)

●    Loss of coordination—dragging feet, walking on the knuckles, crossing the feet over, acting “drunk”

●    Holding a leg up in the air

●    Muscle spasms along the back, neck, or shoulders

●    Pain when touching along the back or neck

If you see any of these signs, your dog should be examined by a vet immediately.  Early signs of pain can progress to become worse injuries.  Any loss of function in the legs (loss of strength or coordination) should be treated as a true emergency, and you should try to take your dog to an emergency clinic if your primary vet is unavailable.  IF YOUR DOG HAS SIGNS OF A SPINAL CORD INJURY, IT IS IMPORTANT NOT TO WAIT.

If your vet suspects a spinal cord injury, they may prescribe anti-inflammatory or pain medication, or they may suggest advanced testing and treatment, depending on the severity of signs.

For severe disc problems, specialty care is necessary for the best chance of recovery.  Advanced imaging, such as MRI, can be used to diagnose the problem, and the most serious cases require spinal surgery.  Primary care veterinarians will typically refer you to a board-certified veterinary neurologist for such procedures.  A specialist can work with you and your vet to provide the best possible care for your pet.