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A discopathy in dogs is damage to the intervertebral disc up to a herniated disc. Discopathy can cause severe pain and paralysis. Since dachshunds and other dogs with long backs and short legs are often affected, this is also called dachshund paralysis.

What is canine discopathy?

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The term discopathy is made up of the Greek words “discus” for intervertebral disc and “pathia”, which means disease. Discopathy is the technical term for damage or changes in position of the intervertebral disc. This includes all pathological changes in the intervertebral disc up to a bulging disc (protrusion) or a herniated disc (prolapse).

Healthy intervertebral discs enable pain-free mobility of the back and at the same time absorb impacts on the spine, e.g. when jumping. The intervertebral discs lie between the bony vertebral bodies in the spine. In order to ensure mobility and shock absorption, the intervertebral discs must have a certain degree of elasticity. This is made possible by the structure of the intervertebral disc. This consists of a cartilaginous fibrous ring (anulus fibrosus) that encloses the elastic gelatinous core (nucleus pulposus). Cartilage consists of a special connective tissue that offers stability and elasticity at the same time. Thanks to these properties, cartilage enables pain-free movements between movable bony structures, the joints.

What is dachshund paralysis?

One speaks of dachshund paralysis when the dog shows signs of paralysis of the hind limbs due to a herniated disc. In the case of a herniated disc, the entire disc or the gelatinous core presses on the nerve fibers of the spinal cord. In the process, nerves are squeezed, which leads to their damage. Sometimes the disc also “shoots through” the spinal cord, leading to a poor prognosis. So, dogs with dachshund paralysis have paralysis and pain caused by nerve damage.

Although the term “dachshund paralysis” suggests it, it is far from only dachshunds that are affected by dachshund paralysis. Overall, dogs of certain breeds in which a hereditary cartilage growth disorder (chondrodystrophy) occurs more frequently are particularly at risk and are affected at a younger age. The breeds affected include in particular French Bulldogs, English Bulldogs, Boston Terriers and Pugs. In addition, Dachshunds and other long-backed dog breeds, as well as Pekingese, Scottish Terriers, Spaniels and Miniature Poodles have an increased risk of discopathy.

What are the causes of dachshund paralysis (discopathy)?

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Discopathy develops when the fibrous ring and gelatinous core age and gradually lose their function. Such a process is also called degeneration. The discopathy can already occur in younger to middle-aged dogs or only affect older dogs.

Dachshund paralysis can have genetic causes. Younger dogs with discopathy usually have Hansen Type I disc degeneration. Dogs of the chondrodystrophic breeds are affected from the first year of life. Even before the discopathy causes the first symptoms, the intervertebral disc gradually dries out. The cells in the gelatinous core die off and the intervertebral disc increasingly loses its elasticity due to calcium deposits. This makes the intervertebral disc unstable. The fiber ring can tear as a result of impacts and sudden movements, but also with smaller loads. As a result, the gelatinous core or even the entire intervertebral disc exits into the spinal canal in the direction of the spinal cord. The disc “prolapses”, which is why this is called a herniated disc. When the herniated disc presses on the spinal cord, it can injure the spinal cord and the nerves it contains.

Non-chondrodystrophic dogs can also suffer from discopathy. Larger breed dogs are more likely to suffer from Hansen type II degeneration. The elastic tissue in the gelatinous core is transformed into fibrous tissue and thus becomes firmer and less elastic. This process takes place as the dog ages. The first symptoms therefore usually only appear from the age of six or later. Hansen type II degeneration results in disc protrusion rather than herniation.

In predominantly large dogs such as the Dobermann or the Great Dane, a discopathy in the cervical spine can manifest itself as the so-called Wobbler syndrome. With increasing age, the intervertebral discs degenerate until their protrusion pinches the spinal cord in the neck area. This creates the eponymous wobble gait.

In overweight dogs, the intervertebral discs are heavily stressed due to incorrect loading. This can also result in discopathy. Likewise, cauda equina syndrome, in which the bony vertebrae degenerate, can lead to herniated discs.

What are the typical symptoms of dachshund paralysis?

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Typical signs of dachshund paralysis are sudden paralysis and pain. Younger dogs are particularly affected, between the ages of one and six years.

Dog owners can recognize dachshund paralysis when the dog can no longer move the affected limbs or can only do so to a limited extent. This changes the gait pattern, the dog walks unevenly or swaying (atactic). How severe the symptoms of paralysis are and which parts of the body are affected depends on where in the spine the herniated disc occurred and how badly the nerves were squeezed. In the case of massive herniated discs, the dog drags its hind legs after it because it can no longer control it. In addition, the dog loses control over urine and defecation, which is shown, for example, by incontinence.

In addition to the paralysis, dogs with discopathy often experience severe pain. Pet owners recognize pain associated with dachshund paralysis by the fact that the dog moves less or differently than usual and, if necessary, expresses pain sounds and reactions. In the case of herniated discs in the neck area, the dog can show pain, for example, through a stiff head and neck posture. In addition, the muscles in the area can be hardened due to permanent tension. Touching the neck and head area is often painful and can lead to more or less obvious defensive reactions. Defense reactions include flinching or threatening with growls or even snaps. As an expression of pain, affected dogs can also utter cries of pain when there are spontaneous painful movements or touches.

Signs of pain can also be when the dog suddenly no longer wants to climb stairs, avoids jumps or no longer wants to be touched by its owner. Lameness of individual legs can also occur with discopathies, since the movement itself or the resulting pressure when stepping can lead to sudden pain. Furthermore, a posture with a hunched back can indicate a discopathy.

What therapy options are there?

Treatment for dachshund paralysis should be done as soon as possible and depends on the severity of the nerve damage. For minor damage, a dog with dachshund paralysis will be treated with medications that reduce pain and inflammation. Anti-inflammatory drugs, cortisone and painkillers are used, for example. If the dachshund paralysis is severe, an operation is necessary. This is also the case when drug therapy has not improved the symptoms of minor discopathies. Surgery aims to relieve pressure on the pinched nerves. The herniated part of the disc that is pressing on the spinal cord is removed. In the case of dachshund paralysis, the treatment costs depend on the necessary measures and are based on the fee schedule for veterinarians.

In both drug and surgical therapy, the cooperation of the owner is crucial for the success of the treatment. Dogs with discopathy are only allowed to move a little and very carefully. Rapid movements and impacts, such as jumping or running, must be avoided at all costs, otherwise further damage can occur. Therefore, owners must take care to protect their dogs, lift them into the car or over the steps and carefully lead them on the short leash to release them. Long walks are absolutely taboo.

In principle, nerve tissue can heal well if the damage was not too severe and the pressure on the tissue could be removed quickly. The duration of the healing phase depends on the severity of the discopathy and can last from a few weeks to several months. The movement of the dog must also remain severely restricted for just as long.

In coordination with the veterinarian, homeopathy can be used to support paralysis of the dachshund, e.g. to calm the dog. In the case of complete paralysis of the hind legs, a trolley can be helpful as an aid to mobilize the dog with dachshund paralysis. In addition, physiotherapeutic treatment supports the healing process.

When should you go to the vet?

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Pain and signs of paralysis are always a reason to visit the vet immediately. In the case of discopathy, the prognosis is all the better, the faster the pressure on the spinal cord is relieved by appropriate treatment. Even mild symptoms have better chances of recovery than already existing paralysis. A veterinarian should also be consulted if the symptoms seem to improve “on their own” after a while. Even minor movements can suddenly make the discopathy significantly worse.

The veterinarian will first narrow down where the pain is located and, in a neurological examination, determine whether and to what extent signs of paralysis exist. Imaging procedures such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), computed tomography (CT) or myelography, in which the spinal cord is X-rayed with the help of a contrast agent, can be used to locate the site where the herniated disc has occurred. Today, MRI is the method of choice. X-rays help to raise the suspicion of a herniated disc and rule out other causes for the symptoms. X-rays can be used to check whether fractures or changes in the bony vertebrae are the cause of the symptoms.

How to prevent dachshund paralysis?

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Dogs that are at increased risk of dachshund paralysis due to their breed should avoid high jumps. For example, owners of these dogs should lift their dogs in and out of the car, carry them up and down stairs, and lift them off the sofa. The same goes for small dogs too. A ramp to the trunk can also help, for example.

Good core muscles strengthen the back and relieve the intervertebral discs. Dogs of all breeds benefit from targeted muscle building and healthy exercise. The exercises must be tailored to the age, the individual physique and the general state of health of the animal. Vets can give advice on specific exercises or refer them to physical therapists and other specialists.

In addition to the musculature, body weight also plays a decisive role in the prevention of discopathies. Obesity has a negative effect on the entire musculoskeletal system and also puts a lot of strain on the intervertebral discs. Healthy exercise, diet food and measuring the daily feed ration help to lose weight.