Saffy and Emilia featured in this newspaper column ten years ago, when Saffy was a young puppy who had survived Parvovirus, and Emilia was just a ten year old girl. Saffy went on to become a much loved part of the family, and she’s been a healthy dog until the recent crisis.
It happened on the Bank Holiday Monday: Emilia noticed that Saffy was hiding under furniture, not being as social as she would normally be. Then she notied that Saffy wasn’t walking properly: her back legs were dragging behind her, as if she was unable to carry her full weight properly.
The family phoned the emergency vet, which was the right action to take. Sudden onset weakness like this needs urgent treatment. She was given anti-inflammatory medication and pain relief within a few hours, and an appointment was set up for x-rays to be taken at my clinic the following morning.
The x-rays confirmed what the vet suspected: Saffy had a slipped disc, technically known as an “inter-vertebral disc protrusion”. This is exceptionally common in Dachshunds because of their long backs, which cause the anatomical structures of the spine to be under more pressure than most dogs.
The spine of a dog is similar to that of a human: the bones are joined together by ligaments, with each one separated from the next one by a springy, spongy disc, like a shock absorber. This allows the back to be flexible, bending easily in every direction. The discs are made of a fibrous shell containing a jelly-like centre, similar to one of those anti-stress spongy balls that you can squeeze to stop feeling so tense.
A slipped disc happens when the fibrous shell of a disc degenerates as a dog grows older, similar to the way that a rubber band perishes. The jelly-like centre of the disc can then push through the damaged fibrous shell, pushing up against the spinal cord itself. The spinal cord consists of sensitive nerves which carry nerve impulses from the brain to the limbs. When the disc pushes against the spinal cord, the nerves are damaged, and they can no longer carry the nerve impulses to and from the limbs. The result is first, weakness, and if the problem gets worse, it can go on to cause paralysis of the limbs.
The most common place for a slipped disc is in the mid back, so normally it’s just the hind legs that are affected, as with Saffy. Alternatively, the neck can also be affected, in which case there is severe pain, as well as paralysis of all four limbs.
X-ray pictures are needed to identify the location of the slipped disc: the space between the affected bones of the spine appears narrower than normal. Ideally, a CAT or MRI scan can be done to precisely identify what’s going on, but this is normally only needed if surgery is going to be done to remove and correct the damaged disc.
In most cases, this is not needed: over 80% of affected dogs recover with a simple approach of strict rest combined with anti-inflammatory pain relief. The Howarths have bought a small cage, and Saffy is going to stay in the cage for the next six weeks or so. If her spine can be prevented from flexing and twisting, the hope is that the disc will settle back down into its normal position.
She’ll need to be monitored carefully: sometimes, even when dogs are rested, the slipped disc continues to move upwards against the spinal cord, and the weakness of the back legs can progress into full paralysis. If this happens, emergency surgery on the spine is needed, which costs thousands of euro. Even then, some dogs never recover from the paralysis, needing to live in a doggy wheelchair, with wheels instead of back legs, for the rest of their lives.
Saffy has settled into her cage, and is taking her medication. She’ll be carefully watched for the coming weeks, and we’re all hoping for the best.