A herniated spinal disk is one of the most common neurological problems in small-breed dogs. Prompt diagnosis and treatment is essential to avoid permanent paralysis or other long-term problems for the patient. Disk disease in dachshunds, chihuahuas, beagles and other small breeds can lead to an acute rupture, sending the disk material into the spinal canal at a high velocity.
In other cases, the material can seep into the canal, causing either only pain, or a gradually progressive weakness and eventually paralysis. Depending on the location of the disk herniation, the patient may be paralyzed from the ”waist down” (hind limb paralysis) or “from neck down” (unable to use any of the limbs).
In these neurosurgical emergency cases, the prognosis for recovery varies. About 95 percent of the patients who can still feel the hind limbs can make a complete recovery if surgery is done quickly. Otherwise, the outlook is much less favorable. That’s why our team is on call to perform these assessments and surgeries at night and weekends if necessary.
To localize the disk problem, a non-invasive CT scan or an MRI study are the most effective diagnostic tools, followed by contrast spinal studies. This is necessary to rule out other possible problems, such as a spinal tumor, meningitis or other inflammatory diseases. If the disk has ruptured, the surgery is usually done right away while the patient is still under anesthesia. The procedure usually takes 1-3 hours, and involves opening the spinal canal, scooping out the disk material and controlling any bleeding. Unlike humans, who walk upright, there is no need to repair the damaged disk and the patient will be able to move normally once fully recovered.
Since this surgery removes the pressure from the spinal cord, many patients feel a sense of relief afterwards. The surgical pain, which is less intense, is managed with balanced pain medications. Additional medications may be needed to relax the urethra so the patient can urinate normally and antibiotics, especially if urinary tract infection is diagnosed. Sutures on the back can be removed after two weeks, and many patients can walk at that time, even if they stagger a bit. However, just like people after spinal surgery, it can take several months for a complete recovery. However, physical therapy at home or at a professional physical therapy facility can accelerate the process for many patients.
Finally, owners need to understand that because disk degeneration is a condition which most of these small breeds are born with, the patient is at risk for another rupture. If immobility and pain return, another surgery may be necessary in the future.