INTERVERTEBRAL DISK HERNIATION
Intervertebral disk herniation is a common cause of back pain and
limb weakness in dogs. It represents 2-3% of all veterinary
The intervertebral disk is a cushion-like structure that sits
between vertebras. In some dogs, especially dachshunds, disks can
undergo changes in structure that make them prone to rupture (also
referred to as herniation). When a disk herniates, disk material
becomes displaced into the spinal canal and puts pressure on the
The symptoms associated with this are variable and can consist of
spinal pain, incoordination of the limbs, weakness, and difficulty
urinating. Dogs that are not ambulating due to disk herniation may
have an excellent outcome with appropriate care, but need advanced
diagnostics and treatment performed in a timely manner.
Imaging of the vertebral column is essential in diagnosing disk
herniation. Most practitioners use radiographs as a “rough”
screening tool to exclude certain diseases, like bone tumors or
infection, which sometimes can be recognized on radiographs.
Although x-rays are a very valuable test, they are only 30-60%
accurate at detecting disk herniation.
MRI is the preferred means of diagnosing disk herniation in humans
and veterinary patients, as it is non-invasive, allows for direct
visualization of the spinal cord, and can diagnose certain diseases
that mimic disk herniation that cannot be detected using other
techniques. Our recent research shows that MRI findings are
associated with the odds of recovery following disk herniation and
thus can be a helpful tool in recommending treatment.
There are two basic treatment options for disk herniation:
medical or surgical therapy.
Medical management is best for animals with mild neurologic
deficits (mild weakness, mild incoordination, but still able to
walk) who lack a history of repeated episodes of pain or
Surgical management is best for animals who are walking but very
weak, not walking, or have had several episodes of pain or weakness
from which recovery has been incomplete.
With surgery, 85-95% of dogs with thoracolumbar (mid back) disk
herniation will recover, even if movement is not present, so long
as they can feel their back legs. Dogs with thoracolumbar disk
herniation who cannot feel their back legs have a 40-50% chance of
walking after surgical treatment, but the odds of recovery are
affected by MRI findings such as T2W hyperintensity. Appropriate
postoperative care is essential, including analgesia, cage rest and
All patients with spinal cord injury whether they have had surgery
or not, need to be on strict cage confinement. Cage confinement
allows for healing of surgical incisions and will allow for scar
tissue to form over injured disks. Rest is recommended for 4 weeks
for postoperative patients; shorter intervals of rest are sometimes
suggested with medical management.
Physical rehabilitation is also a very important part of your
pet’s recovery. Swimming, active weight-bearing exercises, passive
range of motions, electrical muscle stimulation, and underwater
treadmill can shorten recovery time dramatically. Rehabilitation
prevents disuse atrophy, helps retrain the muscles, and reduces the
chance of muscle contracture.
Most Frequently Affected Breeds