Pet Connection: Spinal alert for dogs with long backs, short legs

I’m not sure exactly how it happens, but veterinarians tend to take on “special needs” pets.

Of course, I’m no exception.

My French bulldog’s chronic spinal problems and ensuing disability make him a perfect poster child for veterinarian-owned pets everywhere. It also makes him the ideal subject of a discussion on intervertebral disk disease, arguably the most common spinal malady among dogs.

Intervertebral disk disease, like my dog Vincent’s, is referred to as “IVDD” by veterinarians, but is better known to the general public as “slipped disks.” It’s a condition caused by the untimely degeneration of one or more of the disk-shaped structures that serve as cushions between the bony vertebrae of the spine. When these disks go bad, the material contained within them is extruded, thereby compressing the most sensitive nearby structure: the spinal cord.

Like my temperamental Vincent (his spine isn’t the only source of his “specialness”), the spinal cord doesn’t take insults lying down. It lets everyone know when it’s unhappy. In most cases, pain is the body’s most obvious response to an affronted spinal cord. Afflicted dogs may stand in a hunched position, cry out when picked up, refuse to jump or decline to eat, among other possible symptoms.

But some dogs aren’t especially demonstrative when it comes to letting you know they’re hurting. In fact, plenty will never whine, cry or otherwise display their discomfort — ever. For some, that’s because their disease is mild. For others, it’s because it’s simply their nature to conceal pain.

In more advanced cases, however, the evidence of IVDD may ultimately appear in how they move. An odd hitch in her stride, a peculiar dragging of a hind foot, a funny crossing-over of hind limbs — all are possibilities. In these patients, what you’re observing is the end result of a serious spinal offense: evidence of nerve damage.

When the spinal cord is damaged — whether permanently or temporarily — communication between the brain and the body is disrupted. And for most IVDD patients, the hind limbs are the first to go. That’s why the unluckiest patients will forever walk oddly, if they walk at all.

In Vincent’s case, it has taken three surgeries to get him back on all four paws. Nonetheless, these separate IVDD events have claimed most of his hind limb function. The next time, his neurosurgeons tell me, he won’t be so lucky, which is why he’s already being trained to use his K-9 cart, a.k.a. a “doggie wheelchair.”

To be sure, it’s a depressing disease. More so for dogs that don’t have the luxury of a veterinarian owner and a bunch of board-certified neurosurgeons to lavish them with their professional services.

But fortunately, few dogs are as seriously diseased as Vincent. Trouble is, for every wheelchair-bound patient, hundreds more suffer painful IVDD symptoms that aren’t detected or treated.

It makes sense, then, that research dollars might be dedicated to exploring the basis for this disease. Because it’s especially common in dachshunds, among other short-legged, long-backed breeds (bassets, shih tzus, Welsh corgis, etc.), a recent veterinary study at the Royal Veterinary College in London undertook to understand this connection, ultimately establishing a relationship between long backs, short legs and IVDD.

Although all dog owners should be on the lookout for pain and dysfunction, those who count stubby-legged, long-backed dogs among their family are effectively put on notice: Spinal troubles may be headed your way. So at your next veterinary visit, why not ask your pet’s doctor to check for telltale signs you might be missing? The earlier the diagnosis, the more treatment options there are, and the better chance your dog has of living without the chronic pain IVDD can cause.